On July 3rd,
I personally was a 9-year-old Catholic school boy (and those of you who know me know that must have been a very, very long time ago) when Engelbart and his team, and most notably his primary research partner Bill English, delivered what is now known as “the Mother of All Demos” at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on December 8, 1968. If you’re geeky enough, as I was, to make it well into the YouTube posting of this video, you just might learn some valuable historical lessons about our country, what we once were, and what we’ve become.
The video shows what was projected on a large screen before a 2000-seat arena, and Engelbart introduces it by saying, “If in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display that was backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?” Forty-five years ago, he literally describes the work environment of hundreds of millions of people on the planet today.
Engelbart sits below and to the right of the screen, which shows both his face and a number of other images superimposed on the view of his “computer-display work station.” Behind the scenes, Bill English commands a team of six people located both in
Ultimately, however, like all good presenters, Engelbart starts to give us stories. The first is the story of his wife calling and asking him to do some shopping, giving him the chance to show us how he constructed not just one but a series of shopping lists for various stores he would visit on his way home, and not just the lists, but also a map of his trip home showing the various stops, each with a hyperlink to the shopping list associated with that particular stop.
Then, 18 minutes into the demo, Engelbart declares that he will be “shifting from the illustrative material to the real working stuff, in case you wouldn’t recognize it.” And this is where he gets to the more interesting story: that of his team at SRI, its history, its objectives, and its funding sources.
His team had had the system he was demonstrating up and running for about 6 months, going from one timeshare terminal to 6, with plans to add another 6 in the coming months after that, and here he explains that “... the next step when you’re faced with having this in your office all day, as I now do (it’s been very exciting since), how do you put that to work for yourself?”
At the time, the AHIRC was staffed by 17 people working in a specialized computer lab. Staffing over the years from 1950 onwards had grown in fits and starts, and had in fact been only 1 from 1950 to about 1962, rising to 17 by 1968. Through that time, it functioned as what Engelbart calls a “goal-oriented pursuit” of the following primary objective:
Improve the effectiveness with which individuals and organizations work at intellectual tasks.
Notable to me in that objective was its broad sweep. Engelbart wasn’t trying to win a war, he wasn’t trying to defeat terrorists, and he certainly wasn’t trying to make any money for anyone. Nonetheless, in all that time, he tells us, AHIRC was “sponsored by government agencies. Currently, ARPA, NASA, and RADC. Also, in the past, AFOSR and ESD. These are the people that first grubstaked us many years ago.”
Now many of you will recognize those acronyms but many won’t, so I’ll help: Engelbart and his team were supported in their sweeping research objectives by the U.S. Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, and the U.S. Air Force’s
Even more remarkable, Engelbart goes on to explain his team’s research approach, which he describes as an empirical approach of build and try, or “bootstrapping in a new sense.”
We needed a research subject group to give them these tools, put them to work with them, study them, and improve them. We’ll do that by making ourselves be the subject group and studying ourselves and making the tools so that they improve our ability to develop and study these kinds of systems and produce in the end this kind of system discipline.
In Engelbart’s day, the roles of Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor were played by people like Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon, and I struggle, frankly, to imagine any of those elected leaders applying the kind of critical and creative thinking the Defense Department, the Air Force, and NASA did when they approved Douglas Engelbart’s research proposals. I will, however, continue with that struggle, because that’s my only way of remaining connected and hopeful in our hyper-partisan 2013
I was surprised to find in his writings that Engelbart was aware, at some level, of what he was asking of the world as he embarked on his quest for a better world. Seeing ever-increasing complexity in daily life, and increasingly complex problems facing humanity, Engelbart realized that his effort to tame that complexity would amount to something like a “crusade.” And as he wrote in his 1986 paper Workstation History and the Augmented KnowledgeWorkshop:
Crusades have many strikes against them at the outset. E.g.: they don't connect to a normal source of government or business revenue; they don't have nice organizational frameworks—you can't go out on the streets and expect to find financial, production, or marketing vice presidents; even if you accomplished the sweeping change that was the ultimate objective, chances are that in this very complex world, the side effects might be bad enough to make you wish you hadn't.
We can only be glad and appreciative that despite those misgivings Engelbart resolved to press on, and despite the forces arrayed against him, our government decided to support him in the end.
Barney Frank has said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” We should all be pleased and encouraged that so often those things turn out to be the truly great things that change the world.