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 the future.
Bob Haavind, Editor-in-Chief
Recently, the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize, worth $500,000, was awarded during a ceremony at the Smithsonian in Washington to Douglas Engelbart, a hands-on engineer/inventor who was instrumental in the development of networking and the personal computer. There could not be a more deserving winner of this prestigious award than this unassuming, brilliant visionary. Most technical people I talk with don't even know of Doug Engelbart and the revolutionary work 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 a legacy of those efforts.

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

In 1968, a demonstration of interactive group computing by Doug and his co-workers amazed the industry. I visited the group shortly afterward, and one researcher explained that working with the SRI system was like flying a jet plane vs. a prop-type puddle-jumper. To keep the team focused, Doug had the members do their work and communicate with each other over the system they were developing, a process they called "bootstrapping." This led to daily frustrations, and lots of ideas about how such a system could provide 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 Position Indicator for a Display System"), multiple windows on the same screen, the first working electronic mail and word processing systems, the first implementation of hypertext links and nodes, shared-screen teleconferencing, composite graphic-text files, on-line integrated help systems, outlining software and idea processors, and a remote procedure call protocol providing a reach-through process for integrating functions. Doug also invented a five-key input device that he learned to use with such facility that he could run rings around someone with a keyboard.

Technology still hasn't caught up to Doug's vision for the future. He continues to work collaboratively with companies and individuals developing advanced systems through the Bootstrap Institute (Fremont, CA, (510) 713-3550,e-mail, which he founded in 1989. He is concerned about the interoperability of future distributed computer networks allowing knowledge workers, 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 other large organizations almost all of us depend on a wide range of more fundamental developments that emerged from the pioneering work of Doug Engelbart and his team to do our daily work.

Thanks, Doug, and congratulations.


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