A Lifetime Pursuit0

A brief history of Doug Engelbart's work from a biographical sketch of Douglas C. Engelbart, by Christina Engelbart*

Early Years1

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013) enjoyed a life-long track record in predicting, designing, and implementing the future of organizational computing. The grandson of early pioneers of the West, he grew up during the Great Depression on a small farmstead near Portland, Oregon. After graduating from high school in 1942, he went on to study electrical engineering at Oregon State University. World War II interrupted his studies for the Navy, where he served for two years in the Philippines as an electronic/radar technician. After completing his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1948, he settled contentedly on the San Francisco peninsula as an electrical engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory (forerunner of NASA).1a

His Epiphany2

In 1951 he got engaged, which spurred him to think about his life goals, how he might dedicate his career toward something that might make a difference in the world. He thought about the world's problems, and what he as an engineer might possibly be able to do about them. He had read about the development of the computer, and seriously considered how it might be used to support mankind's efforts to solve these problems. As a radar technician he had seen how information could be displayed on a screen.2a

He began to envision people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, "flying around" in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped. Then they would communicate and collectively organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility. So he applied to the graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, to launch his crusade. Berkeley had a serious R&D program for developing a general-purpose digital computer, the CalDiC. There was no computer science department at that time, and the closest working computer was probably on the eastern side of the country, with MIT's Project Whirlwind.2b

He obtained his Ph.D. in 1955, along with a half dozen patents in "bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices," and then stayed on at Berkeley as an acting assistant professor. Within a year, however, he was tipped off by a colleague that if he kept talking about his "wild ideas" he'd be an acting assistant professor forever. So he ventured back down into what is now Silicon Valley, in search of more suitable employment.2c

SRI Years3

He settled on a research position at Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, in 1957. There he earned another dozen patents in two years working on magnetic computer components, fundamental digital-device phenomena, and miniaturization scaling potential.3a

By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval for pursuing his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a conceptual framework for a new discipline that became the guiding force for his 1962 seminal work, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," under contract prepared for the Director of Information Sciences of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.3b

Concepts such as augmenting human intellect, improvement infrastructure, co-evolution of artifacts with social-cultural language-practices, and bootstrapping evolved directly from this work, as did the subsequent twenty years of applied co-evolution. Motivating that framework were, and still are the assumptions that complexity and urgency are increasing exponentially and that the combination of these two will soon challenge our organizations, be they private or public, to henceforth do their changing by effective, continuing strategic principles rather than in incremental steps. Therefore, in addition to aspiring to be increasingly faster and smarter at their core missions (whether creating better widgets, or solving societal problems), organizations will need to get increasingly faster and smarter at how they keep improving. Engelbart saw both organizational missions as relying heavily on a common set of core capabilities, which he encapsulated in the term human intellect. Later, he began using the term knowledge work after reading a '68 Peter Drucker publication, and later still, more purposefully, switched to the larger, centrally significant concept of collective IQ.3c

His thinking prompted assessment of the infrastructure of capabilities that support the operation of organizations of collectively purposeful humans, capabilities developed atop their genetically endowed capabilities to provide their personal and collective operational effectiveness. A myriad of technical and non-technical elements came into play, such as tools, media, language, customs, knowledge, skills, procedures, and so on. He perceived that these elements had co-evolved slowly over centuries, but that with the explosive emergence of digital technology, the technical elements would shoot way ahead of the non-technical and cause a trend toward automating rather than augmenting peoples' activities. It would be necessary, therefore, to accelerate the co-evolutionary process, which means purposefully focusing in on the potential of human processes in concert with technological possibilities, with a special focus on those that serve to improve our collective capabilities.3d

From this emerged the basic concept of bootstrapping. Purposefully investing in improving organizational collective IQ through intelligent improvement strategies promises to yield compound returns. In simple words, the better we get at our collective IQ, the better we'd get at improving our collective IQ.3e

Early programmatic targets were to create advanced pilot "outposts" well beyond the frontiers of current activities, outposts staffed by highly capable knowledge workers and subject experts to experiment and explore future modes of working. In the spirit of this bootstrapping strategy, Engelbart proposed that an early target for these workers should be augmented support structures for organizational improvement activities, especially by raising the competence of the designers, implementers, and deployers of tools and practices.3f

It was in 1963, based on his proposal written for the Air Force, that he began receiving the funds for his own research laboratory, which he later dubbed the Augmentation Research Center (APC). The evolution of his laboratory over the next fifteen years followed this strategy, and its extended record of unusually creative and coherent tools and work processes can to a considerable extent be traced to the fact that everybody on his team worked the new way -- programmers, designers, project managers, application-support staff, as well as the considerable array of pro-active end-user organizations supported through the ARPANet from 1974 into the late '80s.3g

The year before, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had brought to Washington a man who made a singularly important difference in the history of computers and networks. Dr. Joseph C. R. Licklider (aka Lick)* came from Harvard, via the Cambridge consulting firm of Bolt Baranek and Newman, with an unusually open charter to foster research associated with the theme on which he himself had previously published, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," and toward the technology necessary to do "time sharing" of a computer's processing power between a number of concurrently active on-line users. 3h

Because Engelbart's published framework of 1962* and the pursuits proposed therein were so much on line with his, Licklider began steering funds to him despite voiced misgivings of some of his colleagues -- something that came into the open some years later from unguarded chatter by some of them at a cocktail party. "Nothing personal, you understand," it's just that "way out there in Palo Alto, there isn't the computer and programming talent to justify investing good R&D dollars." The year before, a proposal made to a government funding agency had been turned down in almost those exact words in spite of being rated as "a very interesting proposal."3i

The first two years of ARPA support were relatively unproductive -- problems in aligning actual work with bootstrapping concepts, which were deemed inappropriate by prevailing paradigms of management, engineering and computer programming. Meanwhile a fortunate bit of funding arrived from a NASA psychologist named Bob Taylor. (Later, Taylor moved to ARPA and became a significant factor in launching the ARPANet.) That started a project to experiment and evaluate various available "screen selection" devices -- pointers -- to see which would be most appropriate for use in on-line computer interaction. Engelbart proposed the research, and was listed as the Principle Investigator, but it was his friend Bill English, an extremely effective engineer and organizer, who put together the tests and analyses which yielded the effective results. Engelbart had thought of the basic idea for the computer mouse several years before and, almost incidental to this, suggested with a few simple sketches that maybe building and testing this kind of a device would help round out the experiments. So, Bill English built it, and someone -- no one can remember who -- started referring to it as the mouse. And it just happened to win the tests; and people on the project began building and using them throughout the following fifteen years.3j

The Augmentation Research Center was developing the kind of technology that Engelbart believed would be required to augment human intellect, and to support the bootstrapping/augmentation process as well. Throughout the '60s and '70s, the lab pioneered an elaborate hypermedia-groupware system called NLS (for oN-Line System) most of whose now-common features were conceived of, fully integrated and in everyday operational use, by the early 1970s (see Pioneering Firsts).3k

In the Spring of 1967, it was announced that the thirteen ARPA-sponsored computer research labs, including the Augmentation Research Center, would be networked to promote the sharing of resources. Engelbart was thrilled. The ARC became the second host on the ARPANet, which he viewed as an excellent vehicle for extending his lab's NLS provisions into a collaboration distributed well beyond the confines of his ARC. He also perceived NLS as a natural to support an on-line directory of resources and therefore he proposed that ARPA support a Network Information Center (NIC).3l

1968 Demo4

During the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference (a semi-annual joint meeting of the then major computing societies) held in San Francisco, the ARC lab harnessed some leased video links to the conference site, borrowed an unusual new device that could project dynamic video brightly onto a 20-foot screen sufficient to display Doug's NLS screen to 1000-plus attendees*. At a special session, Engelbart, operating NLS from the stage through a home-made modem, used NLS to outline and then concretely illustrate his ideas to the audience while members of his staff (with their faces shown on the screen) linked in from his lab at SRI. A standing ovation concluded this "mother of all demos," the first public demonstration of the computer mouse, of hypermedia, of on-screen video teleconferencing (Ref. 1).4a

Convention hall: Hope, 1968
From hope to glory. San Francisco's Brooks Hall set up for the historic demonstration of the computer mouse, hypermedia, and on-screen video teleconferencing, 1968.4b

Pioneering Firsts5

The augmentation framework requires an effective integration of psychology and organizational development with evolving computing technology, such that advancements in each are informed by the other in a coherent system. Engelbart strongly believes that the co-evolution of human natural capabilities and those of artifacts should be based on rigorous exploratory use in a wide variety of real-world applications (Ref. 2). Therefore, in the mid-70s, he began building up a community of users via the ARPANet. These knowledge-work architects as he called them collaborated in pilot trials and lessons learned that then fed back into future requirements of the evolving processes and tools.5a

From the beginning, Engelbart applied a bootstrapping strategy by using NLS for distributed collaborative software engineering, technology transfer, community support, and accelerative continuous improvement (Refs 3, 4, 5). Not only did his knowledge-work architects use the NLS, but the entire R&D operation did. The system was further developed and maintained by using NLS in creating structured hypertext files with links between the source code, design documents, specifications, bug reports, change requests, think pieces, commentary, rationales, customer records, and so on. At its peak, Engelbart's ARC lab had grown to 47 people, including the Network Information Center. (For a more detailed autobiographical rendition of his "odyssey" since 1951 (Ref. 6).5b

Among the Pioneering "Firsts" fully integrated into NLS:5c

Said Doug Engelbart, "Many of those firsts came right out of the staff's innovations -- even had to be explained to me before I could understand them. They deserve more recognition." [to vE].5d

Commercial Vector6

In 1977, SRI sold its commercial rights to NLS, along with its service business of supporting customer organizations over the ARPANet, to Tymshare Inc. of Cupertino, CA. In 1978, Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center was transferred to Tymshare, NLS was renamed Augment and became the principal line of business in Tymshare's newly formed Office Automation Division, where the focus of his team was switched from highly innovative R&D to commercialization. A number of good researchers from his lab went to Xerox PARC instead, and some of his staff remained at SRI to operate the NIC. In spite of Engelbart's efforts, Tymshare cut the human/organizational bootstrapping work, including his carefully cultivated user group of knowledge-work architects.6a

In 1984, Tymshare was acquired by McDonnell Douglas Corporation, where Engelbart began working closely with the aerospace components on issues of integrated information system architectures and associated evolutionary strategies. It was a welcome extension of his work from SRI. Engelbart left McDonnell Douglas Corp. in 1989, looking for a new, more open venue where he was free to promote collaboration across all sectors of industry and public organizations.6b

Bootstrap Ho!7

In 1989, Engelbart joined forces with his daughter Christina Engelbart to found the Bootstrap Institute in a quest to form strategic alliances aimed at dramatically improving organizations and society at large. They felt the time was ripe to pursue in earnest his comprehensive strategy for "bootstrapping organizations into the 21st century."7a

Engelbart's focus continued to be on creating high-performance organizations by fostering bootstrapping communities, researching and developing the enabling technologies, best practices, and special strategies for developing and deploying these capabilities, with pro-active participation from stakeholders in government, industry, and society (Refs 12, 13). In the early 1990s Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Alliance as a non-profit organizational base for this collaboration, and eventually dropped the Bootstrap Institute to focus entirely on Alliance pursuits, dividing his time between R&D, consulting, publications, speaking engagements, leading seminars and workshops, and guiding an enthusiastic team of volunteer professionals. 7b

In 2008, the year marking the 40th anniversary of the world debut of the mouse, Engelbart took the title of Founder Emeritus, having passed the baton and title of Executive Director to his long-time business partner and daughter Christina Engelbart. This year also marked the renaming of Bootstrap Alliance to the Doug Engelbart Institute and repositioning the organization and all-new website to expand on Doug's vision and considerable achievements to carry his legacy forward.7d

The Unfinished Revolution8

Doug Engelbart has authored over 30 publications, and generated 20 patents, including the patent for the mouse. He is the recipient of many honors, notably the Lemelson-MIT Prize, received in 1997 with a check for $500,000, and, on December 1, 2000, from the hands of President Clinton, the highest award for technological achievement the United States has to offer, the National Medal of Technology [story and photographs].8a

Engelbart's idealism never made it easy on him. Through the years he has been misunderstood, told he was dead wrong, ridiculed, or simply ignored, which many say is to be expected when one is "20 years ahead of his time." But with each new wave of the computer revolution unfolding (e.g. office automation, personal computing, groupware, hypertext), and people's experience became more aligned with Engelbart's vision, they would typically say "OK, now I see what he was trying to do." Problem is, people are still looking at his past accomplishments while he himself continues to point to the future.8b

For over two decades, thousands of knowledge workers in industry and government benefited from the unique team support capabilities of NLS and its evolutionary successor, Augment. There has been a surge of interest and exploration in the new interrelated topics of computer-supported co-operative work, groupware, and hypermedia. It is now recognized that Engelbart's emphasis at SRI on supporting collaborative work, and associated systems development, not only clearly anticipated this major trend, but produced in NLS/Augment what is still the most comprehensive system for supporting wide-area collaboration (Refs 7, 8, 9).8c

In 1998 Engelbart was honored at a special event at Stanford University titled "Engelbart's Unfinished Revolution" commemorating the 30th anniversary of the world debut of the mouse, NLS, and his bootstrapping strategy (view the video). Session One includes Engelbart in a panel discussion with key team members discussing what it took to put on that historic demonstration. Session Three includes Engelbart in conversation with Jeff Rulifson, former NLS architect, Xerox PARC lab director, and Sun Microsystems lab director, discussing the aspects of their work that still offer the most far reaching potential and yet have been least understood -- the bootstrapping strategy, human-tool co-evolution, pilot outposts, and improvement communities -- all aimed at boosting our collective IQ so we as a people can get smarter and faster at solving complex, urgent problems. In 2008 he was again honored with celebratory events marking the 40th anniversary of the 40th anniversary of his 1968 demo -- see Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing hosted by SRI International at Stanford University, and Program for the Future which was held at the nearby Tech Museum. 8d

In recent decades, Engelbart was heartened by the movements in total quality, business process re-engineering, reinventing organizations, concurrent engineering, groupware, hypermedia, the World Wide Web, and all the impressive networks of improvement and innovation activities sprouting up all over the world. He continued to hope that enough synergy could be generated among these activities to ignite a serious, thriving bootstrapping activity -- a collaborative improvement community aimed at spawning vast improvements in our organizations that would boost mankind's collective IQ to unforeseen heights.8e

This bootstrapping community would jointly pioneer future work modes, enabled by advanced, rapidly evolving prototypes, and pioneer better and better strategies for designing, implementing, and transforming those work modes into common practice. The community would act as rigorous beta testers of their R&D results, a staging area for implementing and evaluating pilot trials, and a focus for anticipating industrial requirements and much needed industry standards in this arena (Refs 10, 11)8f

Additional Facts9

Doug Engelbart continued to live in the San Francisco Bay Area in close proximity to most of his four children and nine grandchildren. His wife of 47 years, Ballard, died in 1997. She was exceptionally talented and creative in her own right, her undying support to Doug on the homefront allowed him the freedom to devote himself so completely to his vision. With her love for people, her many interests, and her flair for entertaining she and Doug enjoyed an enriching social life, and were avid folk dancers for many years with a very special group of friends of all ages. Through the years Doug has also enjoyed exercising, hiking, camping, sailing, reading, bike riding (although he appeased his wife long ago by giving up trick riding), organic gardening, raising ducks, earthworms, and bees, making up science fiction fantasy stories for children, giving science lectures to his wife when she had trouble sleeping, and any excuse for a family gathering. In 2008, Doug married Karen O'Leary Engelbart. The two lived in his Atherton home until his death on July 2, 2013. 9a

From 1992-2007 Engelbart's team was hosted at the operational headquarters of Logitech, the world's largest supplier of computer mice. They collaborated online, largely connected via an Augment emulation running on Windows. In October 2007, 30 years after he and his team left SRI, Doug's Institute was relocated back to SRI International. 9b

In November 2007, after growing concern over his declining short term memory, Doug was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. As Ronald Reagan so eloquently wrote in his 1994 Alzheimer's Letter: "In the past Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives. // So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it." Fifty percent of individuals over the age of 85 are diagnosed with this disease, and with Baby Boomers approaching their golden years, many more individuals and their families will be affected. According to California's former First Lady Maria Shriver, "The emotional, spiritual and financial cost of this disease is mind boggling to the nation."[**] As Doug would say in response this and all other important challenges, 'all the more reason to get working on boosting our collective IQ so we can get better at solving these complex, urgent problems!'

As Doug would say in response this and all other important challenges,
'all the more reason to get working on boosting our collective IQ so we can get better at solving these complex, urgent problems!'


Re Christina Engelbart. Daughter and long-time business partner of Douglas Engelbart, co-founder of the Bootstrap Institute and Bootstrap Alliance. Christina wrote the original version of this biography in 1986. At the webmaster's request, Doug Engelbart has elaborated on specific points and updated some of the information.10a

Re J.C.R. Licklider. The story of Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider and many others, including Doug Engelbart, has been told by M. Mitchell Waldrop in "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal" (Penguin Books, 2001).10b


  1. A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect. Douglas C. Engelbart and William K. English, AFIPS Conference Proceedings of the December 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, CA, Vol.33, pp. 395-410 (AUGMENT,3954,).
  2. 11a
  3. The Augmentation System Framework. Douglas C. Engelbart and Kristina Hooper, a chapter in "Interactive Multimedia," Sueann Ambron and Kristina Hooper [Ed.], Microsoft Press, 1988, pp. 14-31 (AUGMENT,133187,).
  4. 11b
  5. Design Considerations for Knowledge Workshop Terminals. Douglas C. Engelbart, AFIPS Conference Proceedings, 42, National Computer Conference, June 4-8, 1973, pp. 221-227 (AUGMENT,14851,).
  6. 11c
  7. Coordinated Information Services for a Discipline- or Mission-Oriented Community. Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the Second Annual Computer Communications Conference, San Jose, CA, January 24, 1973 (AUGMENT,12445,).
  8. 11d
  9. A Software Engineering Environment. Kenneth E. Victor, Proceedings of AIAA/NASA/IEEE/ACM Computers In Aerospace Conference, Los Angeles, CA, October 31-November 2, 1977, pp. 399-403 (AUGMENT,29292,).
  10. 11e
  11. Workstation History and The Augmented Knowledge Workshop. Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the ACM Conference on the History of Personal Workstations, Palo Alto, CA, January 9-10, 1986, pp. 73-83 (AUGMENT,101931,).
  12. 11f
  13. Collaboration Support Provisions in AUGMENT. Douglas C. Engelbart, OAC '84 Digest: Proceedings of the AFIPS Office Automation Conference, Los Angeles, CA, February 20-22 1984, pp. 51-58 (OAD,2221,).
  14. 11g
  15. Working Together. Douglas C. Engelbart and Harvey Lehtman, BYTE Magazine, December 1988, pp. 245-252 (AUGMENT,133186,).
  16. 11h
  17. Authorship Provisions in AUGMENT. Douglas C. Engelbart, COMPCON '84 Digest: Proceedings of the COMPCON Conference, San Francisco, CA, February 27 - March 1, 1984, pp. 465-472 (OAD,2250,). Republished with articles No.4, 6, and 21 in "Computer Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings," Irene Greif [Ed.], Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Inc., San Mateo, CA, 1988, pp. 107-126. Also in "Groupware: Software for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work," D. Marca and G. Bock [Ed.], IEEE, 1992
  18. 11i
  19. Knowledge-Domain Interoperability and an Open Hyperdocument System. Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Los Angeles, CA, October 7-10, 1990, pp. 143-156 (AUGMENT,132082,).
  20. 11j
  21. Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware. Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the GroupWare '92 Conference, San Jose, CA, August 3-5, 1992, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers (AUGMENT,132811,).
  22. 11k
  23. Line Processor -- A Device for Amplification of Display Terminal Capabilities for Text Manipulation. Donald I. Andrews, AFIPS Conference Proceedings, National Computer Conference, 1974, pp. 257-265 (AUGMENT,20184,)
  24. 11l
  25. Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware. Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the GroupWare '92 Conference, San Jose, CA, August 3-5, 1992, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers (AUGMENT,132811,).
  26. 11m

See Also 13

In a Nutshell
History in Pix
Selected Videos
Press Clippings
Honors | Patents | Bio
Engelbart Archives 13a

Press Clip 14

From the San Jose Mercury News, in a 1999 story by Tia O'Brian

... unlike many of his colleagues, who would learn to balance their idealism with less lofty goals such as making a living and advancing their careers, Engelbart remained a purist who doggedly refused to compromise his vision for a better world. 14b

"We were doing this for humanity. It would never occur to us to try and cash in on it. That's still where Doug's mind is," explains Rulifson, director of Sun's Networking and Security Center. Engelbart still is working nonstop on the crusade he launched in the 1950s: He believes that as technology speeds up the rate of change, making the world increasingly complex, its power must be harnessed to help people collaborate and solve problems. He's clung stubbornly to his mission even after he lost his research lab, even when it meant less money, even after a devastating fire and a bout with a life-threatening illness. Even when the wise men of Silicon Valley ridiculed him. Only in the last five years, as his once fantastic-sounding vision becomes reality, has he begun to win recognition. Last year he won the Turing Award, the Nobel Prize equivalent for computer scientists. He also was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1997, he won the coveted Lemelson-MIT $500,000 prize. 14c

He has remained bewildered as to why it has taken so long for society to catch up to him. "The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. I have tolerated a lot," says Engelbart of his life. Reader's Digest paid Engelbart $35 to publish that quote, more than he was paid for many of his revolutionary inventions. 14d