In 90 minutes you can watch a movieread a few chapters of that novel you started over the weekend, take a good walk to relax or, if you’re Douglas Engelbartgive a lecture that anticipates the paths that computing will follow in the rest of the century, a speech so brutal, so illustrious, visionary or directly prophetic —Etiquette is the least important thing!— that more than half a century later he still remembers what “The Mother of All Demos”.
90 minutes, So. What it takes to make a plum cake of chocolate.
In 1968, Engelbart, an engineer at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), faced with a dilemma. If his career could be compared to a game of poker, you could say that the time had come for him to go for a manual all-in, play it and go all-or-nothing.
With his team of Augmentation Research Center (ARC), at the SRI, had been developing for several years the online system, a system that facilitated the management of computers and even collaborative work. Among other tools, it incorporated resources such as hyperlinks, graphical user interfaces or hardware that simplified its use.
With the picture of mainframe examples and the punched cards still in the pituitary, Engelbart’s team had set themselves on a lofty goal: to make computing more affordable, simpler and more convenient, which would somehow help develop human capacities.
play all or nothing
And they weren’t bad at the effort. “Instead of punch cards, the online system featured a radar-like screen with a graphical user interface (GUI) in which the user manipulated text, symbols, and video in a series of overlapping “windows”. For example, users can insert, delete and move text within a document”, notes the Smithsonian. The tool even allowed several people to work on a document simultaneously.
As part of this particular crusade for computing simplicity, Staford also experimented with hardware that put the easiest things to users.
In ARC they took shape, for example, a “chord keyboard” that supplemented the QWERTY, a luminous stylus and several prototype “controls” to operate the equipment, including one that was controlled with the knee and a block of wood with a cable. and wheel which, given its particular rodent appearance, ended up getting the nickname “mouse”. Yes, more or less the Cro-Magnon of mice that soon became part of their Xerox and Apple computers and that you still use today with your PC.
This was all great, but behind the scenes, Engelbart and his men were dealing with a problem almost as tricky as developing new hardware: How to make such work visible?
To SRI Engineer and Bob Taylor, Director of Agency for Advanced Research Projects (ARPA), one of their great financial supporters, they found a solution. It wasn’t revolutionary, or even moderately original, but it could work: displaying all that baggage in one of the big showcases in the sector, the Fall Joint IT Conference end of 1968.
If all went well, it could be a bell. If things got bad… Well, if things got tough, they’d be playing in a resounding professional bump that would hurt the work they’d been doing for years and, what was really dangerous, would jeopardize any future funding.
So no pressure.
“We are taking a huge risk” later recalled Engelbart.
Eager to put all the meat on the grill, in March 1968 they asked for a special session at the San Francisco congress and the dice were cast: their speech would take place on December 9 of the same year at Brooks Hall, a hall with 2,000 seats. The title of the conference advanced where the shots would go: “A research center to increase the human intellect“.
Today, this may seem strange to us, but for Engelbart and his people, the challenge was not just to play it all or nothing, to calm the nerves and to fine-tune the message. The conference itself was a technological challenge in itself. If they wanted to demonstrate their ability and how revolutionary it is, they couldn’t be disgusted with the budget: it was time to Throw the house out the window.
First, the team had to connect the auditorium in which Engelbart would speak in December, in San Francisco, with the SRI offices where his team worked and the mainframe, a facility located in Menlo Park, a few meters from the. 30 km away.
For months, the ARC team spent months assembling the infrastructure, installing cameras in the IRS and auditorium, receiving antennas, transmitters, a microwave link and a home modem so that the commands from Engelbart’s console can be transmitted to Menlo Park.
The bill that ended up paying ARPA was $175,000, sum more than honorable for the moment. A demonstration of “virguerías” — you understand, it was in 1968 — so that the engineer could demonstrate, with the support of 17 colleagues from the ARC, what the online system was capable of doing.
On December 9, 1968, the system was perfectly calibrated. And the nerves, of course, on the surface. At almost 44 years old, Engelbart had already gained experience in companies, at university, had led his own team and had even participated in the Second World War; but that day in San Francisco, he felt –he recognized it himself– as if driven by demons.
Today’s lecture recording may seem old-fashioned, antediluvian, just like those that show Neil Armstrong mocks on the grainy surface of the Moon, but what Engelbart’s contemporaries saw with increasing astonishment was a real show of genius.
For 90 minutes in which nothing was heard in the room other than your explanationsthe engineer was talking about hyperlinks, videoconferencing, shared documents and collaborative work, window-based graphical interfaces, word processing or graphics.
As a highlight, he even explained –remember at the National Museum of American History— that the SRI was about to become the second node of ARPANet, the ancestor of the Internet as we know it today. In 90 minutes, come on, who takes a good nap, the Stanford engineer had plotted some of the keys computing for the rest of the century.
And all this with demonstrations that are now part of everyday computing but which at the time looked almost like science fiction accessories, like computer mice.
Continuing the poker comparison, when Engelbart finished, he checked that his bet had been good: when he stopped talking in the auditorium, the applause from his colleagues began to thunder. “people were amazed”, would explain decades later one of his SRI colleagues, William English, New York Times: “In one hour, he defined the modern computing age.”
The things of life that Engelbart and the rest of his collaborators at SRI have seen and even shown the way do not mean that they have been called upon to defend its development.
Shortly after this display of talent in 1968, the team began to falter in momentum. Some staff questioned lab drift, funding was lost, other talent hubs sprang up, such as Xerox in Palo Alto (PARC)… And quite simply, some of the people who worked with Engelbart ended up looking for new destinations, taking with them what they had learned.
For a time many people believed that the mouse had been a Xerox invention. That they weren’t the ones in charge of taking the next step take nothing away from them.
The veteran engineer not only designed much of 20th-century computing for the purpose of a biblical prophet; It also helped, and perhaps just as importantly, that many people change your computer image: stop seeing it as an inaccessible world, full of huge, complex, corporate machines designed only for high-tech laboratories and companies, and start to understand it as a useful tool for the daily lives of workers.
Not a weapon. Not a complicated contraption. Nor as a means to replace human effort. No. A complement, a way to go a little further in the capacities, to push back the limits. As he already put it in the title of his presentation: “A research center to increase the human intellect“.
“If you had a computer-assisted display in your office that was active for you all day and responded instantly to your every action, what value could you get out of it?” hooked Engelbart to his audience in the fall of 1968.