On December 9, 1968, a team led by computer scientist Douglas Engelbart ran a 90 minute tech demo at a San Francisco conference. This “mother of all demos” introduced the world to the computer mouse, windows, hypertext, and collaborative document editors.
Early digital computers automated and accelerated mathematical calculation; you could only interact with them using punched cards or punched paper tape. From the 1980s on, digital computers performed a vast array of functions and used a graphical interface that could be described as WIMP – for “Windows,” “Icons,” “Menus,” and “Pointers” (i.e. the mouse cursor). How did we get from punched cards and calculations to mice and windows? As it turns out, almost the entire modern paradigm of personal computing owes its existence to a single tech demo given in 1968: Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos.
The concept of using a computer to enhance human knowledge systems had been kicking around for a couple of decades at least. Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 essay “As We May Think” laid the groundwork for the information revolution. He proposed a device that would let someone electronically store, retrieve, annotate, organise, link, and share documents and images. This essay inspired an inventor named Douglas Engelbart to think about the ways in which we might interact with and use computers for more than just numerical computation.
Engelbart joined the Stanford Research Institute in 1957. In the early 1960s, with funding from the US Department of Defense and NASA, he founded the Augmentation Research Center. And, by 1968, Engelbart and his team of engineers were ready to demonstrate some of their work.
If you have a spare hundred minutes you can watch the whole demonstration here:
Engelbart, armed with a keyboard and a mouse, shows off his “oN-Line System.” He enters and organises a shopping list, saves and restores files, follows some hyperlinks between documents, and collaborates via modem with colleagues who are back at his office. All this seems completely prosaic today, but at the time it was a revelation.
Engelbart’s mouse was the first computer mouse. When he clicked on a hyperlink, that was the first public demonstration of hyperlinking. When he and his colleagues collaborated on a document virtually and in real time, it had not been done before. It is no understatement to say that this demonstration set the agenda for modern computing.
But not directly. The title “Mother of All Demos” was applied retrospectively, once its contribution became apparent. The inventions and innovations of Engelbart’s team never saw production; instead, it inspired later teams like XEROX Parc, which itself went on to inspire Microsoft and Apple and set off the world of modern computing.