Douglas C. Engelbart Essay, Research Paper
A pioneer in the area of human-computer communications, Engelbart’s
theories on using computers and software to augment human intellect led to the development
of such items as the graphical user interface (GUI) and the mouse.
Although such things as the graphical user interface and the mouse are largely taken
for granted today, they might not be part of the computing environment without Douglas
Engelbart and his quest to develop a computerized system to assist human intellect.
Douglas Engelbart was born in 1925 in Portland, Ore. He graduated from high school in
Portland and enrolled at Oregon State University in Corvallis in 1942. Engelbart planned
to study electrical engineering, and had a strong interest in learning RADAR, at the time
a new military technology. Although he had no interest in a military career, he also had
no other career plans. He was merely interested in getting an education.
Engelbart was drafted at the end of his sophomore year, and took a test the Navy had
designed to identify individuals with interest in RADAR technology. He passed the test and
was accepted into the Navy’s year-long training program.
It was Engelbart’s years as a radar tech that would greatly shape his future
vision of how computers should display information. Also an early influence on his work
was Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article "As We May Think," a discussion of the
future use of machines as mechanical aids to human intellect, which he read in a Red Cross
hospital in the Phillipines while awaiting discharge.
Following the war, Engelbart returned to Oregon State University, where he received a
bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1948. After graduation, he took a
position as an electrical engineer at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View,
It was during this time that Engelbart began thinking about how complicated the world
had become and how humans would manage the complex new challenges they were facing. He
considered the human thought process, and the tools humans use to think.
While driving to work one day, he saw an image of the radar screens he had spent hours
scanning while in the Navy, and he envisioned how similar screens could be used to display
information from a computer. The theory of augmentation—assisting the development of
greater human intellect by allowing machines to perform the mechanical part of thinking
and idea sharing—began to develop.
At the time, there was just a handful of computers across the country, and the only way
to get information from them was through punch cards and printouts. Yet, Engelbart could
see how easily computers and human beings could work together if the tools could be
developed to allow them to do so. It would take some 10 years before he would find anyone
to take him seriously, however.
In 1951, Engelbart decided to look for a way to get into the computer field. He left
Ames and entered graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, which was
conducting a project to build a general purpose digital computer. Although he didn’t
make contact with an actual computer at Berkeley until 1953, and he wasn’t able to
convince his colleagues to spend valuable research time investigating his ideas, he did
receive his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1955, and he stayed on to teach for another
Hoping to develop some of the patents from his Ph.D. work to fund his augmentation
research, Engelbart then started a small business. He closed it in 1957 when he realized
that the semiconductor industry was poised to bypass much of his earlier research.
Tired after seven years of trying to convince others of the ideas he wished to pursue,
Engelbart took a position as a computer researcher with the Stanford Research Institute in
Menlo Park, Calif. There, he was able to persuade SRI’s management to devote some of
its internal research and development money to his efforts.
Coupled with funds Engelbart had received from the Air Force, he was able to work
full-time for several years at his regular job, using his spare time to develop and write
the concepts behind the technologies he envisioned. This work would help fund his future
The launch of the Soviet spaceship Sputnik in 1957 would propel Engelbart’s
research forward as well. In response to Sputnik’s launch, and the ensuing concern
over the U.S.’s loss of technological superiority, the federal government developed
the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to fund new research projects that might help
the U.S. regain its traditional strength.
One of the projects ARPA staff was interested in was Engelbart’s, and in 1963 his
group at SRI received funding for a laboratory designed to move computer technology into a
new realm. Engelbart called this process "bootstrapping," a term he still uses
today, and he named the laboratory the Augmentation Research Center (ARC).
There, Engelbart and several colleagues created the On-Line System (NLS), the first
integrated environment for idea processing. The system utilized a number of tools that
most computer users take for granted today—outline editors for idea development, a
mouse pointing device for on-screen selection, shared-screen teleconferencing, hypertext
linking, word processing, e-mail, on-line help systems, and a full windowing software
In 1968, Engelbart and his group demonstrated these capabilities at the Fall Joint
Computer Conference in San Francisco. Before a large audience, using a keyboard, screen,
mouse and a head-mounted microphone, Engelbart demonstrated the system he had long dreamed
about. It was the first working model for the future of computers, and it electrified the
ARPA canceled the funding of the Augmentation Center in the early 1970s, and the center
closed in 1977. Many of the team members went on to the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC),
a new research center Xerox Corporation had built. There, Engelbart’s creations were
refined, added to, and used as the basis for the first personal computer, the Altair.
Engelbart, however, joined Tymshare Inc., which had bought the teleconferencing system he
demonstrated at the San Francisco conference in 1968. He worked at Tymshare as a senior
scientist until the company was purchased by McDonnell Douglas Corp. in 1989.
In recent years, Engelbart has worked at Stanford University, where he is director of
the Bootstrap Project. The focus of the project is to bring together computer vendors,
developers, and end-users to work together on the technology required by today’s
rapidly changing world. The project is funded by the Kapor Family Foundation, Apple
Computers, and Sun Microsystems.
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