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Henry Sapiecha

Douglas Engelbart, inventor of

the computer mouse, dies at 88


SAN FRANCISCO | Wed Jul 3, 2013 10:28pm EDT

(Reuters) – Douglas Engelbart, a technologist who conceived of the computer mouse and laid out a vision of an Internet decades before others brought those ideas to the mass market, died on Tuesday night. He was 88.


His eldest daughter, Gerda, said by telephone that her father died of kidney failure.

Engelbart arrived at his crowning moment relatively early in his career, on a winter afternoon in 1968, when he delivered an hour-long presentation containing so many far-reaching ideas that it would be referred to decades later as the “mother of all demos.”

Speaking before an audience of 1,000 leading technologists in San Francisco, Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), showed off a cubic device with two rolling discs called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” It was the mouse’s public debut.

Engelbart then summoned, in real-time, the image and voice of a colleague 30 miles away. That was the first videoconference. And he explained a theory of how pages of information could be tied together using text-based links, an idea that would later form the bedrock of the Web’s architecture.

At a time when computing was largely pursued by government researchers or hobbyists with a countercultural bent, Engelbart never sought or enjoyed the explosive wealth that would later become synonymous with Silicon Valley success. For instance, he never received any royalties for the mouse, which SRI patented and later licensed to Apple.


He was intensely driven instead by a belief that computers could be used to augment human intellect. In talks and papers, he described with zeal and bravado a vision of a society in which groups of highly productive workers would spend many hours a day collectively manipulating information on shared computers.

“The possibilities we are pursuing involve an integrated man-machine working relationship, where close, continuous interaction with a computer avails the human of radically changed information-handling and -portrayal skills,” he wrote in a 1961 research proposal at SRI.

His work, he argued with typical conviction, “competes in social significance with research toward harnessing thermonuclear power, exploring outer space, or conquering cancer.”

A proud visionary, Engelbart found himself intellectually isolated at various points in his life. But over time he was proved correct more often than not.

“To see the Internet and the World Wide Web become the dominant paradigms in computing is an enormous vindication of his vision,” Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s almost like Leonardo da Vinci envisioning the helicopter hundreds of years before they could actually be built.”


By 2000, Engelbart had won prestigious accolades including the National Medal of Technology and the Turing Award. He lived in comfort in Atherton, a leafy suburb near Stanford University.

But he wrestled with his fade into obscurity even as entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became celebrity billionaires by realizing some of his early ideas.

In 2005, he told Tom Foremski, a technology journalist, that he felt the last two decades of his life had been a “failure” because he could not receive funding for his research or “engage anybody in a dialogue.”

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on January 30, 1925 in Portland to a radio repairman father who was often absent and a homemaker mother.

He enrolled at Oregon State University, but was drafted into the U.S. Navy and shipped to the Pacific before he could graduate.

He resolved to change the world as a computer scientist after coming across a 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research, while scouring a Red Cross library in a native hut in the Philippines, he told an interviewer years later.


After returning to the United States to complete his degree, Engelbart took a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, after Stanford declined to hire him because his research seemed too removed from practical applications. It would not be the first time his ideas were rejected.

Engelbart also worked at the Ames Laboratory, and the precursor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He obtained a doctorate in electrical engineering from Berkeley in 1955.

He took a job at SRI in 1957, and by the early-1960s Engelbart led a team that began to seriously investigate tools for interactive computing.

After coming back from a computer graphics conference in 1961, Engelbart sketched a design of what would become the mouse and tasked Bill English, an engineering colleague, to carve a prototype out of wood. Engelbart’s team considered other designs, including a device that would be affixed to the underside of a table and controlled by the knee, but the desktop mouse won out.


SRI would later license the technology for $40,000 to Apple, which released its first commercial mouse with the Lisa computer in 1983.

By the late 1970s, Engelbart’s research group was acquired by a company called Tymshare. In the final decades of his career, Engelbart struggled to secure funding for his work, much less return to the same heights of influence.

“I don’t think he was at peace with himself, partly because many, many things that he forecast all came to pass, but many of the things that he saw in his vision still hadn’t,” said Kapor, who helped fund Engelbart’s work in the 1990s. “He was frustrated by his inability to move the field forward.”

In 1986, Engelbart told interviewers from Stanford that his mind had always roamed in a way that set him apart or even alienated him.

“Growing up without a father, through the teenage years and such, I was always sort of different,” Engelbart said. “Other people knew what they were doing, and had good guidance, and had enough money to do it. I was getting by, and trying. I never expected, ever, to be the same as anyone else.”

He is survived by Karen O’Leary Engelbart, his second wife, and four children: Gerda, Diana, Christina and Norman. His first wife, Ballard, died in 1997.

Computer industry pioneer … Douglas Engelgbart.


Douglas Engelbart, the visionary electrical engineer who invented the computer mouse decades before the influx of personal computers into homes and workplaces, has died. He was 88.


He died July 2 at his home in Atherton, California, according to SRI International, the research institute founded by Stanford University. The cause was kidney failure, the New York Times reported, citing his wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart.


Engelbart’s work at SRI, then called the Stanford Research Institute, resulted in 21 patents. The last one, No. 3,541,541, filed in 1967 and granted in 1970, was for the computer mouse.


Douglas Engelbart's original computer mouse.The first prototype of a computer mouse, as designed by Bill English from Douglas Engelbart’s sketches.


“Doug’s legacy is immense,” Curtis R. Carlson, president of SRI, said in a statement. “Anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him.”



In the patent application, the device was described in technical terms: “An X-Y position indicator control for movement by the hand over any surface to move a cursor over the display on a cathode ray tube, the indicator control generating signals indicating its position to cause a cursor to be displayed on the tube at the corresponding position.”




A patent submitted by Douglas Engelbart for the first computer mouse.A patent submitted by Douglas Engelbart for the first computer mouse.



He had devised the palm-sized, wheel-based instrument in 1963 as a way to move a computer-screen cursor by means other than arrows on a keyboard. Other alternatives being weighed at the time were a light-pen pointed at the screen, a tracking ball and a joystick.


“I remember how my head went back to a device called a planimeter,” another wheel-based device used by engineers to measure irregular geometric areas, he recalled in a 1987 oral-history interview with Stanford University Libraries.


His colleague William English, SRI’s chief engineer, led the tinkering and testing of the cursor controller, which was carved from wood and used two perpendicular wheels rather than the roller ball included in subsequent incarnations. English built the first prototype in 1964.


On Dec. 9, 1968, at a computer conference in San Francisco, Engelbart unveiled his team’s work in a presentation that became known in tech circles as “the mother of all demos”. During the 90-minute session, linked to his lab by a homemade modem, Engelbart showed off then-novel feats including interactive computing, video conferencing, windows display and hypertext – plus the rectangular, three-button controller he used to control the cursor on the screen.


Naming rationale


“I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” he told his audience that day. “Sometimes I apologise. It started that way and we never did change it.”


The rationale for the name, he said in other interviews, was quite simple: the device resembled the rodent, with its cord as a tail. He said nobody on his team could remember who used the term first.


The computer mouse burst into public consciousness in the 1980s after being refined at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, debuting with little commercial success as part of the Xerox Star computer in 1981, then finally becoming an integral part of computers sold by Apple and International Business Machines (IBM).


Over the next three decades the mouse was offered in a rainbow of colors and in different styles: cordless, optical rather than mechanical, designed for left-handed use, ergonomically correct. Logitech International, the world’s biggest computer mouse maker, introduced its first mouse for retail in 1985 and shipped its 500 millionth in 2003 and its billionth in 2008.


No royalties


“Isn’t that unbelievable?” Engelbart said in a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek, describing his invention’s lasting ubiquity. “My first thought was that you’d think someone would have come up with a more appropriately dignified name for it by now.”


Engelbart earned no royalties from his invention. He did win, in 1997, the $US500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, and in 2000, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from US President Bill Clinton.


“More than any other person,” said the award citation, “he created the personal computing component of the computer revolution.”


Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on Jan. 30, 1925, near Portland, Oregon, the middle child of three of Carl Engelbart, a radio salesman and repairman, and the former Gladys Munson.


After two years of university, he was drafted and spent two years in the US Navy, from 1944 to 1946.


Chance encounter


During a layover on the South Pacific island of Leyte, on the way to his posting in the Philippines as an electronic radar technician, Engelbart found a Red Cross library – “a genuine native hut, up on stilts, with a thatched roof”, he recalled. “You came up a little ladder or stairs, and inside it was very clean and neat. It had bamboo poles and was just really nice looking. There were lots of books, and nobody else there.”


It was in that unusual academic venue, he recalled, that he encountered As We May Think, an essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, head of US wartime scientific research and development.


In it, Bush predicted technological advancements that would lead to breakthroughs in human knowledge, including “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanised private file and library,” on which a person “stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”


Engelbart recalled, “I remember being thrilled. Just the whole concept of helping people work and think that way just excited me.”


Earliest computers


After the war, he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1948. He spent three years at the federal Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California, then four years at the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in engineering and contributed to building one of the earliest digital computers.


According to a biography written by his daughter, Christina Engelbart, by then he was envisioning “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped. Then they would communicate and collectively organise their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”


Engelbart joined SRI in 1957 and began accumulating patents, some tracing to his graduate work. He became director of the institute’s laboratory, which he named the Augmentation Research Centre.


ARPANET beginnings


In 1962 he produced his own influential paper, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, for the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, building off Bush’s work of two decades earlier. The paper earned him a share of research funds distributed through the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, first known as ARPA, then DARPA.


The Engelbart-led lab at SRI contributed to creation of the ARPANET computer network, a predecessor of the internet.


In 1988, Engelbart left his research job at McDonnell Douglas and, with daughter Christina, set up a nonprofit foundation to advocate his ideas for improving collective knowledge. The foundation started as the Bootstrap Institute and in 2008 became the Doug Engelbart Institute.


Engelbart had four children — daughters Gerda, Diana and Christina, and son Norman — with his first wife, the former Ballard Fish, who died in 1997. He married the former Karen O’Leary in 2008.


Henry Sapiecha

fine gold line