Bill English using NLS in 1968 By 1968 the NLS system integrated a constellation of pioneering firsts for individuals and teams
Watch NLS in action in this Trailer from Doug's 1968 demo (5min)
Photo Doug and holding mice in 1984 Doug at Tymshare (1984)

About NLS / Augment 0


Doug Engelbart first envisioned his work in the 1950s, published it in 1962 with a call to "augment the human intellect", and hired a small team of researchers to develop a demonstration hyper collaborative knowledge environment system called NLS (for oNLine System), first published and publicly demonstrated in 1968 (see the Mother of All Demos), and continued to evolve it under real world usage with a team of up to 47 researchers in his now legendary lab at SRI (Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International), cultivating a networked community of early customer IT pioneers (called "KWAC" for Knowledge Workshop Architect's Community, the first intentional NIC) via the newly formed ARPANet. 1a

Note that the basic functionality of NLS was envisioned at a time when the nearest computer was 3,000 miles away, and implemented at a time when the human-computer interface consisted of punch cards and teletypes, with clumsy line editors to support elite scientific and mathematical applications. So Doug's lab had to prototype much of the underlying technology -- for example they pushed the frontiers in display technology and invented their own high-performance pointing devices (thus was born the Mouse, invented by Engelbart in 1964), and participated in launching the first computer network so they could leverage network technology for their collaborative applications --as well as needing to develop their own paradigm and vocabulary for this work. 1b

To learn more, see Pioneering Firsts and the Resource Links below. 1c

Now "Augment" 2

NLS entered the commercial world beginning in 1978, the software and lab acquired by Tymshare's new Office Automation Division to offer NLS to clients over TymNet as well as ARPANet under the new name "Augment", with continued evolution under more widespread real world usage into the late 1980s. In 1984 McDonnell Douglas acquired Tymshare into their new suite of IT businesses, and later granted Augment to the Bootstrap Alliance (now the Doug Engelbart Institute*). See Augment's Support of Organizations - A Brief History. 2a

What it offered 3

NLS/Augment is difficult to describe, since it is a very richly comprehensive environment of tools and practices for facilitating any scale of heavy knowledge work. True to the bootstrapping strategy, Doug's lab pioneered progressive work processes while using each successive version of NLS/Augment for all its own knowledge work, from drafting, publishing, email, shared screen collaborative viewing and editing, document cataloging, project management, shared address book, and all source code development and maintenance -- all in an integrated hyper groupware environment filled with special features for high performance work.

Augment screenshot circa 2008
For example, you can create a link to any paragraph or line of code or email paragraph, you can see when paragraphs and lines of code were last edited and by whom, and even view a file filtered by author since a certain date and time (as in why doesn't the code work this morning, let's see who was in there changing what when!), you can browse with outline views, drill down into the structure of a document or source code and fly around with a number of precision browsing features and custom viewing features, and edit the structure as well as the text, within and across files and application domains. 3a

In the mid 1990s, the we received a DARPA grant to create a modern user interface for Augment (client software written in SmallTalk/VisualWorks for PC, affectionately called Visual AugTerm or VAT), combining windows, drop down menus, etc. with the powerful backend features described above (pictured left). This also included the option of a browser window for browsing the Augment archives, offering a few extra buttons that enabled someone with no knowledge of Augment to explore, easily learn and experience the power of the system. Our Institute staff used Augment until 2011, migrated from the mainframe onto a high end unix server (thanks to Sun Microsystems) with TOPS-20 operating system emulator (thanks to Ken Harrenstein). 3b

Visit Demos to see NLS, Augment and HyperScope it in action. 3c

Still to come 4

Watch highlights of Doug's pioneering vision that drove his research in this short tribute video (6min)

Engelbart fully expected that all these features supporting high performance collaborative knowledge work would soon migrate out into all varieties of operating systems and commercial applications such as word processors and project management programs, but instead the industry went in the paper-based WYSIWYG desktop publishing direction on the one hand, with a very strong push into proprietary file types, and AI on the other. When the web exploded, it did so with very few of the features Doug and his team had learned were crucial. Other than the mouse, windows, and a few other user interface niceties, his pioneering breakthroughs were largely ignored or discounted. However, not one to give up easily, Doug later put out a call to action detailing what's missing in today's information technology that, if added, would dramatically boost the collective IQ of any team, organization or initiative who learns to harness it. He published requirements for a world wide Open Hyperdocument System (see About OHS). As a modest demonstration of the OHS opportunity, HyperScope was developed to showcase the precision browsing features called for in a modern web browser. 4a

Resources 5

NLS/Augment is extensively documented in a series of professional papers, reports, and demos dating back to 1964. Two key papers include: 5a

  • 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,). Republished as The Augmented Knowledge Workshop in "A History of Personal Workstations," Adele Goldberg [Ed.], ACM Press, New York, 1988, pp. 185-236. 5a1
  • A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect, Douglas C. Engelbart and William K. English, AFIPS Conference Proceedings of the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, CA, 33, December 1968, pp. 395-410 (AUGMENT,3954,). Republished in "Computer Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings," Irene Greif [Ed.], Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Inc., San Mateo, CA, 1988, pp. 81-105. See also Engelbart's videotaped presentation -- aka the "Mother of All Demos" -- of his historic 1968 presentation of this paper at the 1968 conference. 5a2

  See also Augment's Support of Organizations - A Brief History, and the Wikipedia page on NLS.

Key papers and media relevant to furtherance of OHS and HyperScope are listed below, followed by a link to the complete bibliography of Engelbart's publications. 5b

More Firsts 3c

  • Visit Historic Firsts - for more of Doug Engelbart's many groundbreaking firsts. 3c1
  • Visit Doug's Vision for Humanity - among those Historic Firsts, this describes the larger context of his work. 3c2
  • Visit Doug's Great Demo: 1968 - brings to life his early accomplishments with archive footage, photos, fun facts, story, and retrosectives (aka the "Mother of All Demos" – snippets shown above). 3c3