When All Through the House Not a Creature Was Stirring, Not Even a Mouse

“The Mother of All Demos” is celebrating its 50th anniversary. So why was “A Research Centre for Augmenting Human Intellect” deemed worthy of a more grand title?

How it all began

It all began with a man who had a vision. The man’s name Douglas Engelbart. The vision, to free computing from merely being about number crunching, elevating it to become a tool used for communication and information retrieval. Understandably, at the time his peers believed him a “Crackpot” who was living in a fantasy. Little did they know that this “Crackpot” was creating the underlying technologies that influenced both Apple and Microsoft’s graphical user interface.

A Unique Approach

Engelbart’s conceptual development approach leading up to this demo was unique. Engineers predominantly start with a technical challenge to solve, with functionality and consequences falling second and sometimes-other accidental considerations. However, Engelbart began from the opposite direction. He decided to observe and study how we think, how we work, and how we collaborate. From this, he envisioned and created the hardware, software and programming systems necessary to enhance the collective IQ.

Engelbart worked closely with Bill English who built Engelbart’s designs. Starting development and testing of the computer mouse in 1961, it underwent several fundamental design changes, including moving the wire from the bottom of the mouse two the top. This distinctive look is what gave it its original name and, while the design changed, the name stuck. He also prematurely named the curser the ’bug’ but this name failed to catch on in the same way.

The Mother of All Demos

After 7 years of hard work, on Monday 9th December, 1968, Engelbart delivered a presentation that, despite being rather dry, was so influential it was donned the title ‘Mother of All Demos”. His presentation not only provided its audience of 1,000 computer professionals with the mouse but almost all fundamental elements of modern personal computing, including: Windows, Command Input, Hypertext, Video Conferencing, Graphics, Word Processing, Efficient Navigation, Dynamic File Linking, and Collaborative Real-Time Editor. To the 1968 audience, they watched as Engelbart calmly demonstrated technology that seemed to be as futuristic as that on ‘Star Trek, bringing these Si-fi fantasies to life.

Engelbart received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the presentation and they described as a man “dealing lightning with both hands”. It is hard to think that ‘The Mother of all Demos’ could have brought us a drastically different computer mouse, or more accurately computer pedal. In 1967, Engelbart and English designed a pedal mounted below a table could be used as to control cursors. They thought of this idea after noting that people driving cars were capable of surprisingly subtle movements with their feet. This prototype outperformed their early mouse prototype and so ‘marginally’ superior. However, they never pursued the pedal as a possible input device, they also considered other unique input devices including, a knee brace and a device controlled by the users head. That would have made for a very different everyday user experience.

To wrap up this tale of transformation, all that is left to be said is “
Happy Christmas you all, and to all a good-night”.

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