Douglas C. Engelbart, a visionary scientist whose singular epiphany in 1950 about technology’s potential to expand human intelligence led to a host of inventions — among them the computer mouse — that became the basis for both the Internet and the modern personal computer, died Tuesday at his home in Atherton, Calif. He was 88.
The cause was kidney failure, his wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart, said.
Beginning in the 1950s, when computing was in its infancy, Mr. Engelbart, who was born in Portland and went to Oregon State, set out to show that progress in science and engineering could be greatly accelerated if researchers, working in small groups, shared computing power. At the time, however, computers were room-size calculating machines that were not interactive and could be used by only a single person at a time.
In December 1950, while working at a government aerospace laboratory in California, he had what might be called a complete vision of the information age. He saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols, a vision most likely derived from his work on radar consoles while in the Navy in the Philippines after being drafted at the end of World War II.
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The screen, he thought, would serve as a display for a workstation that would organize all the information and communications for a given project.
A decade later, he established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI International) with financing from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force and NASA.
In December 1968, however, he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable
demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. At the time, the only way those and other scientists interacted with computers, the mainframe machines of their day, was by submitting stacks of punch cards to them and waiting hours for a printout of answers.
For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display on a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour he showed how a networked, interactive computing system 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.
In contrast to the mainframes then in use, Mr. Engelbart had created a computerized system he called the “oNLine System” or NLS, which allowed researchers to share information seamlessly and to create and retrieve documents in the form of a structured electronic library.
The event had a lasting impact, and years later people in Silicon Valley still referred to it as “the mother of all demos.” Eventually the technology Mr. Engelbart demonstrated would be refined at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and then be transformed for commercial use by Apple and Microsoft in the 1980s.
The idea of a pointing device that rolled on the desk first occurred to Mr. Engelbart in 1964 while he was attending a computer graphics conference. He was musing about how to move a cursor — initially referred to as a “bug” — on a computer display.
When he returned to work he gave a copy of a sketch to William English, a collaborator and mechanical engineer at SRI, who with the aid of a draftsman fashioned a pine case to hold the mechanical contents.
The first mouse had three buttons, because that was all the case could accommodate, even though Mr. Engelbart felt that as many as 10 buttons would be more useful.
The importance of Mr. Engelbart’s networking ideas would be underscored when, in 1969, his Augment NLS system became the application for which the ARPAnet computer network — the forerunner of the modern Internet — was created.
While in the Navy, Mr. Engelbart came across an article titled “As We May Think” by the physicist Vannevar Bush, which described a universal information retrieval system called Memex. After the war, he returned to Oregon State and was then hired to work at Ames Research Center, a government aerospace laboratory in California run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, NASA’s forerunner. While there, working as an electronics technician, he observed how aerospace engineers started with small models of their designs and then scaled them up to full-size airplanes.
The idea of scaling remained with him, and after getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley and starting work at SRI, he presented a seminal paper on the importance of scaling in microelectronics in 1960, just a year after the invention of the planar transistor, which improved the electrical output of transistors and made them cheaper to manufacture and available to a mass market. He had grown convinced that computers would quickly become more powerful and that there would be enough processing power to design the Memex-like Augment system that he envisioned.