It wasn’t about the mouse

Yesterday, the 40th anniversary of the mouse was celebrated. I don't recall there being similar hysteria over the anniversary of the invention of the steering wheel. Perhaps it's because that didn't have such a clearly defined starting point. For the mouse this came about, in public at least, at its demonstration in 1968 by Douglas C Engelbart in San Francisco.


The demonstration was a technical tour de force. A showing off of all sorts of technologies which, at the time, were futuristic in the extreme. But, curiously, none of them are celebrated with the same fervour as the mouse. And, what's worse, the point of the demonstration, the driving force behind all the inventions barely got a look in.

I once asked Engelbart how he felt following the demonstration. His answer: "I was actually disappointed."

Before explaining his disappointment, let's look at some of the things he demonstrated: teleconferencing with his lab in Palo Alto, on-screen graphics (screens were rare in those days, let alone graphics), shared whiteboarding, word processing, outline processing, hypertext links and much more besides. People were dazzled by the technologies, the visible manifestations of Engelbart's story. Had he been an evangelist instead of an engineer, he might have been more successful at getting his real messages across.

But the delegates had every right to be dazzled. This was pioneering technology, all of which has found its way into the ICT products, devices and services we use today. But, had they listened and been able to keep up, they might have been even more dazzled by the underlying story.

Engelbart and his team invented all this stuff in order to help augment human intellect. Ever since 1950 he had wanted to create things that would "give mankind the means to tackle its growing problems." Specifically, those brought about by ever-accelerating change and increasing complexity.

He spent much of the intervening eighteen years working on a system to amplify the collective intellect of people working towards common goals, creating or adapting software and hardware tools as needed. When we spoke, in 1999, I asked him how far along the journey we'd come. Using a scale of San Jose to San Francisco, he responded "Santa Clara". That's about one twelfth of the distance.

He likened organisations to "vehicles that are moving faster and faster, through rought and rougher, stranger and stranger, terrain." And, to paraphrase, "with dim headlights." He wanted to make the lights brighter, so that threats and opportunities could be spotted earlier and provide systems that would enable the intellectual capital of the organisation to be brought to bear on plans and reactions. His main application, called NLS (for oNLine System), was all about capturing, hyperlinking, manipulating and accessing relevant information in context. (My poor paraphrase. I'll add some links at the end of this post if you want to dig deeper.) For a while, Tymshare owned it and renamed it AUGMENT.

At the demo', 40 years ago, he thought he'd demonstrated how NLS was used within the laboratory for planning, documenting, source code development, business management and document retrieval.

Yesterday, a friend told me that he'd seemed somewhat bemused during the mouse celebration event.

Now you know why.

Here are some background links.

My article in PC Pro

Douglas C Engelbart's Bootstrap Institute

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