It’s hard, but try to imagine-or re member -a world without the
Internet, without e-mail, without Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system,
without pull-down menus in computer programs, and even without the computer
mouse. Then, in one fell swoop, one person unveils the underpinnings of them
That’s what happened in 1968, when Douglas C. Engelbart took the stage at
the mid-December Fall Joint Computing Conference in San Francisco. He was
nervous, fretting the audience might dismiss his concepts for augmenting human
intelligence as too far-out. But he needn’t have worried. Over the next 90
minutes he demonstrated how he could edit a document interactively with
researchers in a distant location-his laboratory at Stanford Research
Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park, Calif.-pointing and clicking
a boxy mouse to switch among windows on a computer screen. The audience
surprised him with a standing ovation. The event is now considered a watershed
in the history of computing.
Yet Engelbart says his inventions have been slow to deliver the impact he
wanted. Drawing on his experience watching radar images as a technician in the
Navy during World War II, he had envisioned window graphics that would make
computers easy to use. Then individuals, companies, and governments could tackle
major issues collectively. Gradually this would enhance the way people think and
learn. Today we have online teamwork and so-called learning organizations. But
society has yet to exploit computers to boost human intelligence on the scale
that Engelbart has been dreaming about since the 1950s.
With all his inventions now in daily use by millions of people, Engelbart
must be a billionaire, right? Hardly. He has picked up some sizable cash awards,
including $500,000 in 1997 when he was honored as an outstanding inventor by
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the only bonus he earned from SRI for
his 1963 invention of the mouse was $10,000, years after he left SRI to start
the Bootstrap Institute in Fremont, Calif. As was customary in the 1960s,
Engelbart assigned all his patent rights to his employer.
Never mind. At 79, as in his youth, Engelbart is driven more by the desire to
make humanity smarter, not himself richer. And on this score, he believes there
is a long way to go. Engelbart saw his 1968 prototype browser-a combination of
what was called groupware and hypertext (the "HT" in HTML, or
hypertext mark-up language)-as a two-way tool for sharing knowledge remotely,
spanning distances, language barriers, and other social and cultural divides.
His ideas helped spawn a huge marketplace for information technology. Still, he
finds the rewards to society disappointing.
In Engelbart’s view, the marketplace may excel at improving products and
making them cheaper. But when it comes to coping with critical, global problems
such as environmental degradation and access to fresh water, the market doesn’t
provide the necessary mechanisms and incentives, he says. It’s not going to
help us "discover the combination of technology and organizational changes
that will produce effective solutions." For that, a higher order of shared
intelligence is essential. When computing brings us closer to that plane, Doug
Engelbart will be the first to cheer.
By Otis Port in BusinessWeek. Copyright 2004 by The
McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc