Inventor of the computer mouse; father of hypermedia
Douglas Engelbart envisioned how to create, access and share ideas and information using computers, as well as how people could interact with one other and work together more effectively in a connected world.
To bring this holistic system into existence, Engelbart created windowed screen design, the user interface, hypermedia, collaborative computing, multimedia, knowledge management and the mouse. His seminal work beginning in the early 1960s led to the creation of the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) now used on all computing devices, and laid the foundation for how and why most of us use computers and the Internet today.
Engelbart was born in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 30, 1925, to Carl Louis Engelbart and Gladys Charlotte Amelia Munson Engelbart. He attended Oregon State College (renamed Oregon State University) for a year, but was drafted, serving two years in the Navy. In 1948, he returned to Oregon State and earned a B.S. in electrical engineering. His first job out of college was at the Ames Research Center, run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.
In 1951, Engelbart got engaged to his wife, Ballard and returned to school, earning a master’s (1953) and a Ph.D. (1955) from the University of California at Berkeley in electrical engineering with a specialty in computers. He stayed on at Berkeley as an acting assistant professor, and in 1957, moved on to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI, now SRI International).
At SRI, Engelbart began to develop tools to augment how people and organizations collect, use and share information. One of these technologies was hypermedia, the linking of one piece of data to another, developed independently but simultaneously in 1964 with east coast-based Ted Nelson, who coined the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia."
For Engelbart, hypermedia was part of a larger integrated system. The foundation of the first hypermedia groupware system was dubbed NLS (oN-Line System). To help navigate NLS, Engelbart experimented with "screen selection" devices – pointers to navigate information presented on a computer screen including a light pen, a foot pedal, a knee apparatus and even a helmet-mounted device.
In 1961, Engelbart envisioned a pointing device that would traverse a desktop on two small wheels, one turning horizontally, the other vertically, each transmitting rotation coordinates to determine the location of a floating on-screen pointer. Two years later, lead engineer Bill English built one from Engelbart's sketches. Encased in a carved out wooden block with perpendicular wheels mounted in the underbelly, it had only one button – that was all there was room for. Someone lost to history started calling it "the mouse."
Engelbart and his crew experimented with additional buttons, working up to five, before settling on three by 1968. SRI patented the mouse, naming Engelbart as its inventor.
At the Joint Computer Conference, a semi-annual meeting of major computing societies in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968, Engelbart conducted what has become known as "The Mother of All Demos," a seminal event in the history of contemporary computing. In front of 1,000 computer professionals, Engelbart and his geographically remote colleagues conducted the first public demonstration of the mouse, hypermedia and hyperlinking, display editing, windows, cross-file editing, idea/outline processing, collaborative groupware, and on-screen video teleconferencing – all brand new concepts and technologies at the time.
Engelbart also was involved in the development of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) ARPANET. On Oct. 29, 1969, Engelbart's lab was at the receiving end of the first message transmitted over ARPANET, which would eventually lead to inception of the Internet.
In the early 1970s, several of Engelbart's ARC engineers landed at Xerox's new Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), incorporating some of Engelbart's more tangible ideas into the Xerox Alto, the first personal computer with a GUI and a mouse. The GUI/mouse system developed for the Xerox Alto was later adapted for Apple and Windows operating systems.
In 1989, Engelbart, and his daughter, Christina, formed the non-profit Bootstrap Institute, which was renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute in 2008, and is now run by Christina.
Engelbart has been awarded 20 patents and is the recipient of multiple awards and honors including the PC Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1993), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (1997), induction into the Computer Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Medal of Technology, presented by President Bill Clinton (2000) and the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition (2005).