Doug Engelbart, American inventor and computing legend, has passed away

Doug Engelbart

Douglas “Doug” Engelbart, a legendary American inventor and computing icon who invented the computer mouse and helped develop much of the modern PC user interface, passed away last night, according to family sources. News of his passing was shared on Professor David Farber’s email list, where Engelbart’s daughter Christina said her father died peacefully in his sleep at home. His health had been deteriorating of late, she said, and he took turn for the worse on the weekend.

Engelbart, who was born in Portland, Ore., was 88. It is hard to describe Engelbart’s role in the personal-computing revolution in mere words — he was well known for his work on human-computer interaction, including the invention of the computer mouse. His research and efforts led to the development of a diverse set of technologies such as hypertext, networked computers and the graphical user interface.

Engelbart joined Stanford Research Institute (which would later become SRI International) in 1957, where he filed for over a dozen patents. His report “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Concept Framework” led to the establishment of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). He (along with others) worked on ideas such as bitmapped screens, collaborative tools, and the precursor of graphical user interfaces.

Invented the mouse and the desktop interface

An obituary in the New York Times quoted Engelbart’s wife Karen as saying the cause of his death was kidney failure. According to the NYT, Engelbart became interested in creating a new way of interacting with computers after reading Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” while serving as a radar technician in the Philippines during World War II.

In 1967, Engelbart filed for a patent for a rudimentary form of computer mouse — SRI patented the mouse and licensed it to Apple for about $40,000. Later, ARC would become involved with ARPANET, the precursor of the internet. In December 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Engelbart the National Medal of Technology.

Embedded below is a video clip of a live demonstration that Engelbart did on December 9, 1968 at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., assisted by a group of researchers from the Augmentation Research Center — a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system they had been working on since 1962. This was the public debut of the computer mouse, but it was only one of the many innovations the group demonstrated, along with hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfIgzSoTMOs&w=420&h=315]

Tributes to a computing legend

From Howard Rheingold, an author and early web pioneer, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and former editor of HotWired, and a research fellow at the Institute for the Future:

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

And from Paul Saffo, a computer-industry forecaster who worked for the Institute for the Future for more than two decades:

Blogging pioneer and RSS developer Dave Winer said that Engelbart — whom he met once for dinner — was “a real computer genius [whose] accomplishments and contributions are a foundation for all that we do with computers today.”

From Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and a former fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

And from Dan Gillmor, author of “We The Media” and also a fellow at the Berkman Center:

From Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3 and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

And from John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead songwriter and co-founder of the EFF:

Rheingold wrote about Engelbart and how he came to found the Augmentation Research Center in a chapter of his 1985 book “Tools For Thought.”

“Doug is neither rich nor famous nor powerful — not that these were ever his goals. All he seems to hunger for is all he ever hungered for — a world that is prepared for the kind of help he wants to give. Ironically, his office at Tymshare in Cupertino, California, is merely blocks away from the headquarters of Apple Corporation, where icons and mice and windows and bit-mapped screens and other Engelbart-originated ideas are now part of a billion-dollar enterprise.”

Excerpts from “The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart,” a book of interviews with Engelbart about his vision for the future of computing, are available free of charge under a Creative Commons licence here.

Former Google engineer Brad Neuberg worked with Engelbart on an NSF project called the “HyperScope Project” that tried to reconstruct parts of his original hypertext system, and described working with him in a blog post:

“Silicon Valley can sometimes be so focused on enfant terribles and excessive riches; Douglas Engelbart is a reminder that part of the founding story behind the computer was Doug’s quest to literally accelerate human evolution. He thought that computers would be as important as writing and language have been in terms of shaping human evolution.”

Former Apple designer and developer Bret Victor also wrote about Engelbart, and how his contribution to software and interface design is often misunderstood — as was the vision behind his inventions and his pursuit of true collaborative technology:

“Engelbart had an intent, a goal, a mission. He stated it clearly and in depth. He intended to augment human intellect. He intended to boost collective intelligence and enable knowledge workers to think in powerful new ways, to collectively solve urgent global problems.”

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