05/12/2021

029 – Mother of all demos – 1968

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In 20 or 30 years, you’ll be able to hold in your hand as much computing knowledge as exists now in the whole city,
or even the whole world. Doug Engelbart

A very key moment in PC development occurred in December 1968 at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.

One session’s promotion stated:

‘This session is entirely devoted to a presentation by Dr. Engelbart on a computer-based, interactive, multi-console display system which is being developed at SRI under the sponsorship of ARPA, NASA and RADC.  The system is being used as an experimental laboratory for investigating principles by which interactive computer aids can augment intellectual capability.  The techniques which are being described will, themselves, be used to augment the presentation.

The session will use an on-line, closed circuit television hook-up to the SRI [Stanford Research Institute] computing system in Menlo Park.  Following the presentation remote terminals to the system, in operation, may be viewed during the remainder of the conference in a special room set aside for that purpose.’

Those who attended it called it the ’Mother of all Demos’.

Video was projected on a 20-foot screen from NASA; an early on-screen teleconference and video conference.  A modem connected the presenter to his NLS (oN-Line System) at Stanford; this was the first collaborative system to use hypertext fully.

Doug Engelbart had read Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article and was motivated by the notion of the Memex.  He earned his PhD at Berkeley and moved to Stanford Research Institute to pursue his ideas.  He sought to augment human intellect and find ways of enhancing human capabilities in solving complex problems.

Engelbart saw beyond the mere number-crunching tasks considered to be the only fare for computers.  He set about finding a symbiosis between this equipment and its operator that could bring dividends. 

Engelbart envisaged bright individuals at interactive workstations pooling collective capabilities and intellect to resolve pressing issues. 

He produced a report entitled ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ that gained him ARPA funding to create what he called the Augmentation Research Center.

His ARC team was the first to develop the notion of bit-mapped screens where individual pixels were used instead of columns and rows of fixed text; it was a more user-friendly interaction.

The team developed multiple on-screen windows, presentation software that presaged the web browser, hypermedia publishing, shared-screen teleconferencing and groupware – the granddaddy to today’s server software…

Arguably the most lasting thing that the ARC team previewed in San Francisco was an ‘X-Y position indicator for a display system’.  Recognise it?  They had hoped to use a more worthy name but someone called it a ‘mouse’ and the name stuck.  Engelbart/SRI obtained a patent for the mouse in 1970 but never sought royalties.

The SDS 940 computer used for NLS had an amazing provenance.  Of course Scientific Data Systems had originally designed it, with ARPA funding.  SDS was acquired by Xerox to prompt the foundation of PARC.    But stranger still is that this was the actual unit that was at the heart of University of California Berkeley’s Project Genie.  At ARC it had also been the recipient of ARPANET’s ‘LO’, the first cross-network message.  It would later be used by the Community Memory project.  Certainly something of a talisman of early PC progress!

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