Was sad to hear that one of my heroes, Doug Engelbart, passed away yesterday. NYT's John Markoff and TIME's Harry McCracken have the best articles on his passing that I've read thus far. I'm still going through the rest.
For those who don't know, Doug is the father of modern concepts of human-computer interaction and collaboration. In 1968, he delivered what came to be known as The Mother of All Demos, wherein he ushered a world where humans not only interacted with computers in a practical way, but interacted with each other through computers. In the process, he showed hypertext, document/object linking, document collaboration and, yes, the mouse. He and his team received a standing ovation, which was highly unusual for conferences of that type.
I was very fortunate to meet and talk with him several times during my five-year agency-side tenure with SRI International, where he undertook the work that would make him famous.
Most know him as "the inventor of the mouse"—a description that I thought he seemed to tolerate more than embrace. In his view, people were far too hung up on that little device. His real contribution, I think, was getting people to understand the potential for how an organization could do what it does better if supplied with connected computing power. He still felt that there was so much more work to be done.
The intro to his 1968 demo was prescient:
If in your office you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you have, how much value could you derive from that?
There are going to be a lot of articles about his considerable (and, he would argue with genuine modesty, unfinished) contributions to computing. Most of these articles, for better or worse, are going to be hung up on the mouse. Journalism is the art of compression and, well, "inventor of the mouse" works better in a headline than "father of most of the ideas that spawned the technogies that this journalist used to write/file this article and that you used to access it."
I won't be able to add much to such eulogies and obituaries. I can, however, relay a fun story.
The PR firm I worked for in 2001 was doing the publicity around SRI's 55th anniversary, which involved an event where the scientists set up a room full of technology demonstrations. These tabletop demos included robotics, artificial muscles, telecommunications advancements, and other cutting-edge innovations. During this event, one of my teammates was responsible for making sure that CNN got to interview SRI's CEO, captured great shots of the technologies, and so on.
At one point, the producer pointed to a white-haired man who was calmly moving from one demonstration to the next.
"Who's that?" he asked.
"Well," my colleague said. "That's Doug Engelbart. While he was at SRI, he invented the mouse and a whole host of other technologies."
"Oh, I've got to meet him."
And, so it went, my colleague approached Doug and explained that CNN wanted to get an interview with him about SRI's history, innovations, and so on. Doug graciously agreed. He gave great interviews anyway.
As CNN's tech crew wired him up for sound and the on-air talent was getting his notes ready, Doug turned to my colleague and calmly asked "What is this 'CNN?'"
For a PR person, explaining "CNN" is kind of like a lightbulb trying to explain "electricity." After a beat, my colleague said, "Well, Doug. It's a TV station on cable that runs news twenty-four hours a day."
Doug pondered this concept for a few long seconds.
"So, people really want that?"
It turned out he didn't watch much TV. Mostly PBS, so he told my colleague.
His brilliance aside, you could forgive the man for enjoying life in his head so much that a top cable news network, by then more than two decades old, might escape his notice. If you got to play around in a head like that, I imagine that a lot of things that you currently find absolutely critical would suddenly seem far less so.
He did everything anyone could to improve our world. I'm certain he's already hard at work improving the next.