The Mother of All Demos

March 23, 2010 | Past

On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The public presentation was a session of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.

Wired News describes the demo as

The fruit of nearly 10 years’ work into ways that computers might be used to help ordinary people work better on intellectual tasks. And by “intellectual,” Engelbart wasn’t thinking of analyzing data on nuclear fission experiments, he was thinking of ordinary office workers whose jobs involved writing memos, looking up information, filing things, communicating with others, persuading groups of people through presentations, and working collaboratively to solve difficult problems.

At the end of the demo, the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

So why did it take so long for the ideas Engelbart presented to become popularized? For example, it was another five years before Xerox introduced their mouse and GUI, but sixteen years before Apple took the concepts mainstream and simplified with the Macintosh. It was over twenty years before his hypertext ideas lead to the birth of the web.

In a BBC interview Jeff Rulifson, one of the system’s programmers said “I think what happened was that Doug was very focused on extremely powerful systems for extremely highly-trained people. NLS had 500 single key commands.” It’s said that the combination of the mouse and five-finger keyboard gave functionality far beyond what’s possible today — but it was simply too difficult for most people to learn. In an anecdode, “Engelbart compared his interaction system to that of the violin. In essence, he said that the violin is an awkward instrument for novices but that, with training, a good musician can create incredibly beautiful music.” An interesting debate between efficiency and ease-of-use.

I’d never seen this video before, and at nearly 100 minutes long, it’s a commitment to watch. But the work shown is so remarkable, and such a foundation to how we currently interact with computers, that it should be required viewing. (For cheaters there’s a 25 minute highlights version here.) No wonder it’s been nicknamed The Mother of All Demos.

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