Internet Pioneers

Doug Engelbart

Douglas Engelbart has always been ahead of his time, having ideas that seemed far-fetched at the time but later were taken for granted. For instance, as far back as the 1960s he was touting the use of computers for online conferencing and collaboration. Engelbart's most famous invention is the computer mouse, also developed in the 1960s, but not used commercially until the 1980s. Like Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, Engelbart wanted to use technology to augment human intellect. He saw technology, especially computers, as the answers to the problem of dealing with the ever more complex modern world and has dedicated his life to the pursuit of developing technology to augment human intellect.

Early Years

Douglas Engelbart was born in 1925, in Oregon, where he grew up on a small farm. In 1942, he graduated high school and went to Oregon State University to study electrical engineering. His studies were interrupted by WWII. He joined the Navy and spent two years in the Philippines as a radar technician. While stationed in the Philippines he read Vannevar Bush's "As We may Think." Engelbart would later write to Bush acknowledging the influence Bush's article had had on his own work. (Zachary, 267).

Engelbart's Vision

Engelbart went back to school after the war and received his degree in 1948. He then went to work for the NACA Ames Laboratory—the pre-cursor to NASA. By 1950, Engelbart began to grow restless. "I realized that I didn't have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after," and he asked himself, "How can my career maximize my contribution to mankind?" (Engelbart in O'Brien) He thought about how the world was growing ever more complex and remembered his experience reading Bush. He began to "envision people sitting in front of displays, 'flying around' in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility." (Engelbart bio, Bootstrap Institute). This was, of course, well before the Internet or World Wide Web came into existence.

With his new goal in mind, Engelbart enrolled in the graduate program in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley and earned his Ph.D. in 1955. He stayed at Berkeley as an Assistant Professor, but soon he realized that his dreams of using computers to augment human intellect were to far ahead of the mainstream to be pursued in that setting. Engelbart left Berkeley and got a research position at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI)

At SRI, Engelbart formulated a new discipline aimed helping organizations keep up with the growing complexity and urgency they were facing with the exponential growth and development of technology, or as he simply put it, augmenting human intellect. In 1962, he wrote his seminal work, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework . This paper set out the basic ideas that have continued to guide Engelbart's work:

"By 'augmenting human intellect' we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by "complex situations" we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers—whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human "feel for a situation" usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids." (Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: Introduction)


In 1963, Engelbart set up his own research lab. He called it the Augmentation Research Center. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s his mlab developed an elaborate hypermedia—groupware system called NLS (oNLine System). NLS facilitated the creation of digital libraries and storage and retrieval of electronic documents using hypertext. This was the first successful implementation of hypertext. NLS used a new device to facilitate computer interaction—the mouse. (The mouse was not adopted for general use until the 1980s when Apple computers began using them). NLS also created new graphical user interfaces implementing a windowing environment and allowed the user to e-mail other users as well as offering a variety of word processing options. Perhaps most remarkably, NLS also provided for on-screen video teleconferencing. All of these technologies, which are now ubiquitous, were truly astonishing to most back in the 1960s.

In 1968, at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Engelbart demonstrated NLS in a 90 minute multimedia presentation that included a live video conference with staff members back in his lab 30 miles away. To this day, Engelbart's demo is still known as "the mother of all demos." It was truly groundbreaking, but Engelbart was way ahead of his time. His ideas were to different and new for others to fully grasp. Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future said," "It [the demo] was like a UFO landing on the White House lawn." (Saffo in O'Brien). Some people in attendance thought the whole thing was a hoax.


Engelbart had developed NLS with ARPA funding. He was excited about the new network ARPA was building. He saw it as a vehicle to extend NLS and increase distributed collaboration. "I realized there was a ready-made computer community," said Engelbart. "It was just the thing I was looking for." (Engelbart in Hafner & Lyon, 78). SRI, where Engelbart's lab was became the second node on the ARPANET.

Engelbart was very involved in the whole project and put together the Network information Center (NIC) which used NLS as a sort of online clearinghouse for ARPANET resources. Larry Roberts, the principal architect of the ARAPANET, later recalled, " Engelbart at SRI had a hypertext system that he was using at SRI and we all used it. We arranged with him to be the document center for the network so all of the documentation, all of the publications would be online at SRI." (Roberts in Segaller, 127).

Engelbart has continued to work on augmenting human intellect, seldom receiving the acknowledgement many believe he deserves. In 1989, he founded the Bootstrap Institute to foster high performance organizations by developing enabling technologies and promoting collaboration. At age 75, his work continues.


For Further Reading

Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing




Home| Vannevar Bush | J.C.R. Licklider | Larry Roberts | Paul Baran |
Bob Metcalfe |
Doug Engelbart | Vint Cerf | Ted Nelson | Tim Berners-Lee |
Marc Andreesen
| Epilogue | References |