Computer Design

June, 1997


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A worthy prize winner: Doug Engelbart

Technology still hasn't caught up to Doug's vision for thefuture. 
Bob Haavind, Editor-in-Chief
Recently, the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize, worth $500,000, was awarded duringa ceremony at the Smithsonian in Washington to Douglas Engelbart, a hands-onengineer/inventor who was instrumental in the development of networkingand the personal computer. There could not be a more deserving winner ofthis prestigious award than this unassuming, brilliant visionary. Most technicalpeople I talk with don't even know of Doug Engelbart and the revolutionarywork he and his group did at Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s and'70s, yet many of the tools and methods we take for granted today are alegacy of those efforts.

Engelbart's project, supported by the Air Force, was dedicated to "AugmentingHuman Intelligence." Doug viewed the computer as potentially a farmore powerful tool than an equation solver or data processor. Earlier, VannevarBush of MIT had visualized an intelligent assistant, a handy desk-sizedrepository of learning and information that he termed a "memex."Doug Engelbart saw even greater potential. He envisioned a networked systemthat would become a human intelligence amplifier, allowing knowledge workersto operate at a much higher level, not just as individuals, but as membersof project teams grappling with complex, interrelated system and sub-systemdesigns over computer networks.

In 1968, a demonstration of interactive group computing by Doug and hisco-workers amazed the industry. I visited the group shortly afterward, andone researcher explained that working with the SRI system was like flyinga jet plane vs. a prop-type puddle-jumper. To keep the team focused, Doughad the members do their work and communicate with each other over the systemthey were developing, a process they called "bootstrapping." Thisled to daily frustrations, and lots of ideas about how such a system couldprovide much more powerful tools.

When such ideas arose, Doug and his team went to work developing them.Out of this creative ferment came the mouse (patented as an "X-Y PositionIndicator for a Display System"), multiple windows on the same screen,the first working electronic mail and word processing systems, the firstimplementation of hypertext links and nodes, shared-screen teleconferencing,composite graphic-text files, on-line integrated help systems, outliningsoftware and idea processors, and a remote procedure call protocol providinga reach-through process for integrating functions. Doug also invented afive-key input device that he learned to use with such facility that hecould run rings around someone with a keyboard.

Technology still hasn't caught up to Doug's vision for the future. Hecontinues to work collaboratively with companies and individuals developingadvanced systems through the Bootstrap Institute (Fremont, CA, (510) 713-3550,e-mail, which he founded in 1989. He is concerned aboutthe interoperability of future distributed computer networks allowing knowledgeworkers, including software developers and circuit and system designers,to easily exchange and remotely manipulate complex, hyper-linked information.While his recent work draws interest from aircraft developers and otherlarge organizations almost all of us depend on a wide range of more fundamentaldevelopments that emerged from the pioneering work of Doug Engelbart andhis team to do our daily work.

Thanks, Doug, and congratulations.


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