The first time I watched the Mother of All Demos, I thought I was being pranked. And as I realized it was real, I got chills.
Douglas Engelbart has died of kidney failure at the age of 88. He’s best known as the father of the computer mouse—a tool so ubiquitous that one can barely imagine the last 30 years without it. But I’ll always remember Engelbart for a presentation he gave in 1968—that I, of course, have only watched on YouTube—during which he not only teased but demonstrated the vision of the modern PC.
During his presentation in the now-famous Menlo Park, California, Engelbart appears authoritative yet ephemeral. As his face blends with his own screen, Engelbart seems to be a time traveler with one foot removed from reality, casually revealing his aforementioned mouse, video conferencing, word processing, and a slew of technical file interactions that are fundamental to modern systems.
He speaks with a poetry of engineering. There is no pomp or circumstance, no exaggeration or superfluous adjectives. There is simply a carefully calculated truth:
The research program that I’m going to describe to you is quickly characterizable by saying: If in your office, you, as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly…responsive to every action you have. How much value could you derive from that? This is basically what we’ve been pursuing for many years.
I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be one of the 1,000 computer specialists in that room, looking on as technologies 20 to 30 years before their time were demonstrated like toys. But I can imagine what it’s like to live in Engelbart’s world, a world in which a computer is alive for me all day, instantly responsive to every action I take. And that’s a trade that I’ll take.