Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning News

A Difficult, Unforgettable Idea

On the 40th anniversary of Douglas C. Engelbart's "The Mother of All Demos," computer scientists discuss the event's influence—and imagine what could have been.
  1. Article
  2. Author
  3. Footnotes
  4. Figures

On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and his Stanford Research Institute (SRI) team demonstrated their latest inventions at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in an event popularly known as “The Mother of All Demos.” Engelbart’s demonstration included the world debut of the computer mouse, plus the introduction of interactive text, email, teleconferencing and videoconferencing, and hypertext.

But Engelbart, director of SRI’s Augmentation Research Center, had lofty aspirations for the system, called NLS (for oNLine System). His goal was to create an integrated system that would “augment human intellect” by facilitating collaboration and bootstrapping—continually improving the improvement process—and thereby help people better the world. NLS, he hoped, would enable a new way of thinking about how humans work, learn, and live together.

Last December two celebrations—one at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, and another at Stanford University—commemorated the demonstration’s 40th anniversary, and industry luminaries honored Engelbart and his team’s achievements, discussed how the event changed their thinking, and examined its impact on computing.

Andries van Dam, a professor of computer science at Brown University, extolled what he had felt back then was so “mind-blowing” about the demo—that it reflected a broad, new way of thinking about design. “It was a huge beautiful suite of tools that allowed a recursive, self-improvement process—very fast progressive refinement cycles that really raised the collective IQ of the group and made the tools more powerful,” he said.

However, van Dam was disappointed that the idealism of an integrated system has been lost. “Today we have silos—application programs that mirror the development organizations that produced them” and whose “common denominator is importing and exporting bitmaps,” he said. Computing, van Dam suggested, should “go back to the future.”

Alan Kay, president of Viewpoints Research Institute, said what most attracted him to Engelbart’s goal was to use computers to improve the world. However, people disagreed about what it means to augment intellect. Furthermore, he said, the biggest unsolved problem is how to capture group wisdom and the difficulty of summarizing it.

Kay and van Dam both lamented today’s practitioners’ lack of curiosity and historical context. “We’re incredibly wedged… conceptually, technically, emotionally, and psychologically into a tiny and boring form of computing that is not even utilitarian,” said Kay. “I’d be happy to burn the whole thing down and start over again.”

Kay said few people objected when browsers were no longer WYSIWYG-capable “because [people] were not sophisticated enough to have the perspective to complain.” And van Dam objected to “dumbed-down” links. In the past, “we had fine-grained, bidirectional, tagged links useful for information retrieval and viewing specifications for links and their destinations,” he said. “We need to get them back and not just be stuck with URLs.”

Kay warned that suboptimal tools can reshape us, and called on attendees to spread Engelbart’s vision. “Perhaps the real significance of NLS,” he said, “is that it put an idea into the world that is a difficult one, but… it’s an idea none of us can forget.”

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top


UF1 Figure. Clockwise from top left: a video still of Douglas C. Engelbart during “The Mother of All Demos” in 1968; Engelbart conducting a workshop circa 1967; and a closeup view of the ergonomic keyboard and mouse setup used in the 1968 demonstration.

Back to top

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More