Mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart dies

Computer visionary struggled to win recognition or funding for his ideas in later life

Reuters Shona Ghosh
4 Jul 2013

Douglas Engelbart, the scientist behind the PC mouse and a number of internet innovations, has died aged 88.

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 video conference. 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.

It's almost like Leonardo da Vinci envisioning the helicopter hundreds of years before they could actually be built

At a time when computing was largely pursued by government researchers or hobbyists with a counter-cultural 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 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, "competes in social significance with research toward harnessing thermonuclear power, exploring outer space, or conquering cancer."

Computing’s da Vinci

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," said Lotus founder Mitch Kapor. "It's almost like Leonardo da Vinci envisioning the helicopter hundreds of years before they could actually be built."

Engelbert wrestled with a fade into obscurity even as entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became celebrity billionaires by realising some of his early ideas. In 2005, he told journalist Tom Foremski 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."

Engelbart took a job at SRI in 1957, and by the early-1960s 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.

SRI paid tribute to Engelbart's genius.

"Doug was a giant who made the world a much better place and who deeply touched those of us who knew him," said CEO Curtis R. Carlson. "SRI was very privileged and honoured to have him as one of our ‘family.’ He brought tremendous value to society. We will miss his genius, warmth and charm."

"Doug’s legacy is immense—anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him."

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