Understanding Douglas Engelbart

After Doug died, when I was thinking about a topic for my Observer column, I asked my editor if I should do a piece on him. His recommendation was that there would be lots of obits on the Web, so better to do something else. So I did.

But reading through the obituaries, I was struck by the fact that many of them got it wrong. Not in the fact-checking sense, but in terms of failing to understand why Engelbart was such an important figure in the evolution of computing. Many of the obits did indeed mention the famous “mother of all demonstrations” he gave to the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in 1968, but in a way they failed to understand its wider significance. They thought it was about bit-mapped, windowing screens, the mouse, etc. (which of course it demonstrated) whereas in fact that Engelbart was on about was the potential the technology offered for augmenting human intellect through collaborative working at a distance. Harnessing the collective intelligence of the network, in other words. Stuff we now take for granted.

The trouble was that, in 1968, there was no network (the ARPAnet was just being built) and the personal computer movement was about to get under way. The only way Engelbart could realise his dream was by harnessing the power of the time-shared mainframe — the technology that Apple & Co were determined to supplant. So while people understood the originality and power of the WIMPS interface that Doug created (and that Xerox PARC and, later, Apple and then Microsoft implemented), they missed the significance of networking. This also helps to explain, incidentally, why after the personal computer bandwagon began to roll, poor Doug was sidelined.

The only blogger I’ve found who has picked up on this in the wake of Engelbart’s death is Tom Foremski who wrote a lovely, insightful piece. He recounts how he went to a Silicon Valley party for the launch of John Markoff’s book about the PC revolution.

The event was supposed to be about the book, but it quickly turned into a tribute to Doug Engelbart, as John Markoff, and many members of the Homebrew Club, and former colleagues of his spoke about his incredible influence on their work, ideas, and how he changed their lives.

It seemed as if he was the Buckminster Fuller of Silicon Valley in terms of how insightful and how brilliant he was, in story after story shared by people at the event. Others compared him to Leonardo DaVinci.

I was astounded when an elderly man sitting behind me, was given the microphone and started to speak. It was Doug Engelbart. I’d assumed he had passed away a long time ago by the way everyone spoke about him in the past.

I was invited to a post-event dinner for the speakers and press at a local restaurant. I was late in arriving and everyone was already seated. Everyone had crowded onto a large circular table trying to be as close as possible to where New York Times reporter John Markoff was sitting.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Over on another large circular table, half-empty, sat Doug Engelbart. I asked him if I could sit next to him and we talked for hours. I walked out with a great story, a story that no one had written before, a story of a genius whose work was largely killed by the personal computer “revolution” and how he’d spent decades trying to find companies to fund his work and research.

It’s a story that shows Silicon Valley’s ignorance of its own history and its disgraceful treatment of truly inspired visionaries such as Doug Engelbart, in favor of celebrating PR-boosted business managers who say they are changing the world but don’t come close.

Yep. As it happens, I also told this story in my History of the Internet. You can find the relevant excerpt here.