Up Close and Personal: Inventor of the Computer Mouse
By Chuck Boice and George Edmonston Jr.

Many OSU alumni who served during World War II lived through wartime experiences that had strong impacts on their lives and careers.

This is true of Douglas C. Engelbart, '48, whose service as a Navy electronic technician became somewhat responsible for his eventually emerging as one of the most remarkable computer science engineers of the 20th century.

Two days after the war had ended, Engelbart, a native of Portland and a graduate of Franklin High, was relaxing at a Red Cross library in the Philippines when suddenly he came upon an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine by Vanneva Bush titled, "As We May Think."

 

Bush, a distinguished physicist who had been on the faculties at MIT and Carnegie Tech, had been science adviser to President Roosevelt during the war. As Engelbart read through the feature, he found himself especially impressed with Bush's concern that science reach beyond developing instruments of war to begin creating things that would help the world advance.

Bush talked about electronics and where the field was headed. He had invented a calculating device but had envisioned much more, computers that could store and manipulate words and pictures, not just numbers. He even saw a screen on which material could be projected. And he predicted the world would one day have smaller computers that could be operated by individuals.

Computers were all the rage in post-war America, but big business and industry wanted instruments that were fast and large and dedicated to solving mathematical and statistical problems. Often described as "huge, number-crunching machines," they were marvels of the time, but did not do nearly as much as Bush indicated in his writings or a young Doug Engelbart dreamed. Why not take the technology beyond mathematics, Engelbart thought, to the growing array of social, political and personal problems beginning to plague society?

In a very real sense, Doug Engelbart has devoted his life to this challenge.

After the war, the young Navy technician returned to Corvallis and Oregon State College to finish his degree, graduating in 1948 with a B.S. in electrical engineering.
At OSC, Engelbart was a member of Phi Kappa Phi (scholarship honor society), was president of the Engineering Student Council, was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon social fraternity and, in his senior year, was named to Blue Key.

After college, he left for California, where he became an electrical engineer for NASA's Ames Laboratory in Mountain View. Leaving the position after a time, he spent the next four years earning a Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley and remained an additional year as an assistant engineering professor. From Berkeley, it was on to Stanford University, where he would spend the next 20 years at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) developing the now famous Augmentation Research Center. It was here that he would turn his dreams into reality.

In 1977, the commercial rights to Engelbart's work were purchased by Tymshare, Inc., of Cupertino, Calif., and he resumed his career there with the title of senior scientist. In 1984, McDonnell Douglas bought Tymshare, and his developments were conducted under the project name "Augment."

Dr. Engelbart is now known around the world as the inventor of the computer mouse, often described as the most versatile pointing device of all time. But this is only the tip of his iceberg. He also pioneered what is called the modern interactive working environment, introduced the first multi-window computer screen, created two-dimensional editing and cross-file editing, and developed uniform command syntax, mixed text-graphic files, in-file addressing, sophisticated electronic mail systems, idea-processing, shared-screen televiewing and cross-reference links.
Along the way, 25 patents were registered to his name.

Most if not all of these innovations have become a big part of the computer industry as we know it today. The point is, they were being used by Engelbart and his group long before anyone else had caught on.

In addition, much of the computer language we now take for granted first stemmed from the genius of Engelbart and his colleagues, including (of course) "mouse," "electronic or 'e' mail," "teleconferencing," "hypertext," "word processing," "computer graphics," "work stations," "multiple windows" and even "personal computer."
In recognition of his contributions to computer technology, Engelbart has been honored by groups and organizations around the globe.

One of the latest of these came in December 2001 when he traveled to Washington to receive the National Medal of Technology for 2000, given to him for "creating the foundations of personal computing."

In presenting the award, Secretary of Commerce Norman Mineta praised Engelbart as the person, "whose invention of the computer mouse, whose concepts of point-and-click, hypertext linking, and other innovations, (have) helped move the incredible power of computing into the hands of ordinary people."

Curtis Carlson, president and CEO of Stanford Research Institute International, where Engelbart did his seminal work in the 1960s, added, "His work touches the lives of nearly everyone in the world - in business, education, entertainment and our daily lives."

Closer to home, Engelbart received the Oregon State University Alumni Association's highest honor, the E.B. Lemon Award, in 1987 and in January of this year returned to OSU to celebrate "Douglas C. Engelbart Day" as proclaimed by Oregon governor John Kitzhaber. For three days, he shared his past, present and future with an enthralled audience of students, educators and professionals.

Repeatedly, he confessed to his listeners, "I've only wanted to use computers to help people interact and share knowledge, not to automate their lives but to augment them. My dreams have been pushing me for 52 years."

Engelbart today lives in Atherton, Calif., and heads an organization known as the Bootstrap Institute, located in the town of Fremont.

In a Feb. 21, 2001, story in the Silicon Valley publication, The Almanac, staff writer Marion Softky reports the following regarding Engelbart's latest venture:

Dr. Engelbart lays his hope for managing the computer future in the concept of bootstrapping -- derived from the metaphor of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

As soon as we make headway, we should be able to improve the improvement process. That is, the better I get, the better I get at getting better," Engelbart says. "It's compound interest; it's positive feedback."

Ever since 1962, Engelbart has been developing models to improve the co-evolution of computers with human organizations to boost collaboration, and to create what he calls "high performance organizations."

Now his Bootstrap Institute aims to help companies and organizations utilize his techniques.

Engelbart has had it with commercial development. "People keep telling me the marketplace will take care of it. It won't," he says.

Instead, he is planning a system of open software that can be distributed free over the Internet. People can download it, adapt it, change it, use it. "It's got to have an evolving capability and more flexibility than any proprietary software can have," he says.

For example, he and enthusiastic volunteer helpers are working to refine his system for open hypertext documents to be released to the public. "It's going to evolve. We've got to get the process going," he says. "It can apply in different domains -- engineering, medicine, music, poetry, biology, business."

Now SRI has rejoined the effort, and is looking for government funding to prepare Engelbart's systems for launching over the Internet. Dr. (Partick) Lincoln (head of computer science at SRI) calls it a viral model. "We give it to people and they give it to one another, and it spreads," he says hopefully.

What about examples? "How can we collectively develop an energy plan?" Engelbart asks. "What are we going to do about the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels, which is 25-30 years off?"

The Bootstrap Institute seems a perfect fit for the intrepid Oregon Stater and his personal philosophy, maintained throughout his career, of "using technology for the good of all, as a collaborative endeavor where people work together to grow in human knowledge."