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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Mouse Inventor’s Vision of Computing

Douglas Engelbart on the dawn of interactive computing in 1968.

Beginning in the 1950s, when computing was in its infancy, Douglas C. Engelbart set out to show that progress in science and engineering could be greatly accelerated if researchers, working in small groups, shared computing power. He called the approach “bootstrapping.”

At the time, computers were room-size calculating machines that were not interactive and could be used by only a single person at a time.

In December 1968, however, he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration, called the “Mother of All Demos,” before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.

Dr. Engelbart demonstrated a computing collaboration with a researcher in Menlo Park, Calif.

In little more than an hour he showed how a networked, interactive computing sstem would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he had invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing. Some of the features that Dr. Engelbart and his colleagues demonstrated now seem like prototypes for collaborative tools available today, including cloud-based programs for shared editing, like Google Drive.

Dr. Engelbart died Tuesday, but his contributions to computing have reverberated throughout the technology industry since the invention of the mouse, which he described in his patent application as a device to provide an “X-Y position indicator control mechanism” for a computer’s display.

A Bug on the Screen

Dr. Engelbart’s design included buttons (number 22 in the diagram) on top of the mouse to manipulate the display, which appeared on a cathode-ray tube.

His design also had an “erase” feature to wipe away characters on the display. The entire mechanism was comprised of a small housing with two wheels positioned on axes perpendicular from each other.

Over the years, Dr. Engelbart was awarded several honors â€" including the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-M.I.T. Prize and the Turing Award â€" for his many contributions to the computer world. But he will probably be most remembered for the mouse, a device that he called “one of the potentially promising means for delivering and receiving information.” He had mused about his invention as a bug, for the cursor it produced on a screen, but it was a reference to another creature that stuck.