Much of the latest generation of tech startups, and probably two generations before that, must wonder what’s with all the eloquent eulogies about Doug Engelbart, who died July 2 at age 88. He’s often called the father of the computer mouse, but he introduced the world to so much more that it’s hard to believe the innovations came from the mind of one man (thought it must be said, since he was a seminal proponent of computer-driven collaboration, that many colleagues added their own thinking and engineering to his vision).
Technologies that we still use today–videoconferencing, bitmapped displays, screen windowing, real-time text editing, hypertext that prefigured the World Wide Web, and, of course, the mouse–all were shown at what’s known as “the mother of all demos” at a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968. Steve Jobs, whose Apple Computer would refine and popularize many, but not all, of these technologies, was still a 13-year-old student at Cupertino Junior High.
I was fortunate enough to cross Engelbart’s path at least a couple of times, most recently at an event at Stanford University in late 2008 commemorating the 40th anniversary of that demo. The 1968 video of the demo still gives me tingles for the amazing breadth of technologies he and his colleagues marshaled at a time when computing was still done with punch cards fed into room-sized computers. If you haven’t seen it already, spend a piece of your holiday weekend checking it out.
But I was also blessed to have had a chance to interview him in person in 2003 for a story I wrote about my search for the next big thing in technology. I drove across the Dumbarton Bridge in the southern San Francisco Bay to Logitech, the maker of computer mice and other peripherals that provided him with an office. He seemed a little out of place at a company bustling with people a third his age.
Speaking softly but still with an urgent energy, Engelbart was generous with his time. As he sketched his latest thinking on his longtime quest to augment intelligence and speed up innovation of all kinds, I was alternately entranced and a little confused. I simply couldn’t get my arms around his “bootstrapping” vision of how to turbocharge innovation and raise our collective intelligence. I could tell he was a little frustrated not only with my struggles to understand, but also with what he viewed as the limited scope of innovation in latter-day Silicon Valley that he felt would benefit greatly from his ideas.
At some point, he sensed that my attention was flagging from the cognitive overload and decided to wind down the interview, though he offered with his unfailing politeness to follow up with me later as I continued my quest. I still regret not managing to get his thoughts into the story.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t quite grok the fullness of his vision, and he never got much support to turn it into something with widespread practicality. As a close friend of his, futurist Paul Saffo, told me after I interviewed Engelbart and confessed I didn’t quite get what he was saying, it’s a curse to be 50 years ahead of your time. Whether that’s tragic, as Tom Foremski believes, I’m not sure. Engelbart certainly got the credit he deserved, at least later in his life, if not the riches that so many people who piggybacked on his ideas did.
We need more people like Engelbart who can stretch their minds beyond the here and now, who are brave enough to keep pushing even when they’re not understood. The upside of his overreaching is that perhaps we’ve still only scratched the surface of what Engelbart envisioned. I won’t be surprised if decades after his death, innovations that leverage his thinking will be continuing to transform the world.