It was Douglas Engelbart who was able to take Bush’s concept of hypertext to a more concrete level with a stunning demonstration in 1968 of what the future held.
Engelbart, was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1925, he died in 2013. Ted Nelson gave an impassioned eulogy at his memorial service. You get a good view of his charismatic personality as he rails against the forces he believes held himself and Engelbart back during their lives.
Engelbart had been drafted into the Navy in World War II, where he had served as a radar technician. Perhaps his familiarity with cathode ray tubes prepared him for the role he was to play later in the evolution of the visually-centric human/computer interface. While awaiting discharge from the Army in the Philippines at the end of the War, he had read Bush’s article, “As We May Think.” As it turned out, Bush’s precepts remained at the center of Engelbart’s later career in computer science. When he got home, he pursued an education in electrical engineering, receiving a B.S. from Oregon State University in 1948 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955.
After 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth orbiting satellite, the U.S. government, through the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects’ Agency (ARPA), and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research made funds available to further research in computer science. Engelbart had joined a group at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California and in 1962, under a contract with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, wrote a seminal paper building on Vannevar Bush’s earlier concepts. In the paper Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, he sketched out the basis of his advanced thinking on the development of a human/machine interface.
The paper cites Bush’s Memex as important is thinking about next steps not in building a better computer, but in building a better way for humans to interact with the machines so as to leverage the unique powers of human intellect so that it can be efficiently applied to analyze the vastly increasing body of mankind’s knowledge.Engelbart writes in the paper:
The Memex adds a factor of speed and convenience to ordinary filing-system (symbol-structuring) processes that would encourage new methods of work by the user, and it also adds speed and convenience for processes not generally used before. Making it easy to establish and follow the associative trails makes practical a new symbol-structuring process whose use can make a significant difference in the concept structuring and basic methods of work. It is also probable that clever usage of associative-trail manipulation can augment the human’s process structuring and executing capabilities so that he could successfully make use of even more powerful symbol-structure manipulation processes utilizing the Memex capabilities. An example of this general sort of thing was given by Bush, where he points out that the file index can be called to view at the push of a button, which implicitly provides greater capability to work within more sophisticated and complex indexing systems.
Later in the 1960s, Engelbart and his colleagues at SRI, particularly William K. English and John F. Rulifson, created what they called the “Online System (NLS).” They also developed a graphical user interface (GUI) (pronounced “gooey”) to facilitate operating it.
In the 1960s, in corporate America, universities and the government, “big iron” IBM mainframe computers ruled. Input into computers was still done largely through punch cards. Output was typically paper as well. Standard computer output to a visual device was still a print out. These machines were not for ordinary folk, as they were almost entirely devoted to a triad of commercial, scientific and number crunching users. It was quite a departure for Engelbart and his band of software engineers to focus on a highly visual interface, one that even lay people might master. Their unique approach to GUIs and computing led to the development of basic tools such as the mouse, hypertext linking and word- processing in a windows environment.
On December 9, 1968, Engelbart demonstrated his NLS at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. Those who witnessed his use of a keyboard, display screen and mouse knew they were present at an unusual moment.
It’s not surprising that footage from this event was later put on display at the Smithsonian Museum’s exhibit on the Information Age. The combination of the mouse as a tool to interact with the display screen was a giant home run for those present and for the generations of computer users to follow.