It's Been 50 Years: Take Some Time This Weekend To Watch Doug Engelbart's Mother Of All Demos

from the history-in-the-making dept

Normally, on the weekend, we look back at what we wrote about on Techdirt five, ten and fifteen years ago, but I’m going to pre-empt at least a bit of that with this post. Ten years ago, we wrote about the 40th anniversary of the famous and iconic “Mother of All Demos” by Doug Engelbart on December 9th, 1968. A little over five years ago, we wrote about it again, unfortunately on the occasion of Engelbart’s passing.

But, Sunday will now mark the 50th anniversary of the demo, and there’s a very impressive looking Symposium about it happening at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

It’s interesting, in Silicon Valley, how much disdain some have for the past. After all, it’s here that we’re always talking about inventing the future. Engelbart’s demo, 50 years ago, was exactly that. Before even the idea of a graphical user interface for a computer, or the concept of a wider internet, was conceived of, Engelbart was literally demoing a ton of ideas, products, concepts and services that we all use regularly today. Even the demo itself (let alone what he was demoing) was somewhat historic, as the demo showed what was happening on his computer on-screen, but part of it was done via teleconferencing and video sharing (again before most people even had the foggiest idea what that could mean). It demonstrated, for the first time, ideas like the computer mouse, a word process, windows, a graphical user interface, computer graphics, hypertext linking, collaborative editing, version control, dynamic linking and more.

I watch the entire 90 minutes every few years, and it’s amazing how inspiring it is. How miraculous it is. Every time we link to it, it ends up moving around or appearing in different chunks online, but the Doug Engelbart Institute now has it in three separate parts (each about 30 minutes) on YouTube, so I’ll post that version here:

Or, if you really don’t want to watch the entire thing, there’s a nicely done “interactive version” that breaks it down into sections and sub-sections, so you can just watch the clips that are of most interest to you (though, I still recommend watching the entire thing for context).

Part of what’s so inspiring about the demo, of course, is that we’re watching it in retrospect. We now know what transpired over the next 50 years. If none of what Engelbart had presented became common, the demo would probably just be seen as quirky nonsense, a la predictions of flying cars and moon bases. But, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, we know that watching Engelbart’s demo is watching real history in action.

It’s watching the impossible, the magical, become reality. It’s the very thing that has made Silicon Valley so much fun for the past 50 years. Making the impossible not just possible, but everyday. Enabling people to do amazing things.

Of course, we’re living now in an age where the narrative on technology has shifted. People are recognizing that innovation and advancement isn’t always all good for everyone. People are recognizing that it has consequences and creates problems — sometimes serious ones. And those conversations are vital.

But as that narrative has shifted, I worry tremendously about throwing out all of the good things that have come with innovation in our rush to prevent any possible downsides. I’m glad that there’s some level of reckoning happening, and people are proactively trying to think through the impact (both good and bad) of what they’re creating these days. But, I worry that the narrative has shifted so far that in order to prevent “bad” we’re going to end up tossing out much of the good that is set to come as well.

I’m not quite 50 years old yet, but the amount of technological change and innovation in my lifetime has been amazing — and I’d argue that the vast majority of it has been good. It has opened up new worlds. It has enabled new ways to communicate. It has brought knowledge and information to far flung corners of the globe. It has enabled people all over the world to have an impact. And it continues to change as well.

Watching the Mother of All Demos once again lets us wonder about what will happen in the next 50 years. And it gives us a chance to appreciate all that has happened (and has been allowed to happen) over the past 50 years. Engelbart didn’t lock up his ideas. He didn’t block others from using them. There aren’t stories of nasty patent fights (even if he had a bunch of patents). He shared these ideas for the world to see, and the world took these ideas and ran with them, built on them, improved on them and created the amazing world we now live in. This should not be the end of the history of innovation, but a sign of what happens when people do allow for great innovation, and seek to make the impossible, possible.

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Comments on “It's Been 50 Years: Take Some Time This Weekend To Watch Doug Engelbart's Mother Of All Demos”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Winning Ideas and the Idea of Winning?

Given that the rate of change is increasing, I suspect that we will see more incredulity. That is, if the systems in place and the ways they are being used don’t kill the messengers before their messages get out.

Innovation and value are not one in the same, even for those that think they are. How many patents have been put into the public domain? How many ideas have been put out there for ‘others’ to patent? Where is it written (so to speak) that the purpose in life is to become rich?

Who are the winners? The people that suck the ‘value’ out of a patent, or the rest of us? Is the uninhibited pursuit of mammon the ultimate human value, or is it supplementing humanity? Creation is not always done for economic reward, but for rewards of other kinds. Satisfaction. Contribution. Achievement. Self fulfillment.

There are some, I know, who will argue that creators need to eat, and I do not disagree with that. The question is how does one go about doing that? Is it necessary that creation be the method of eating? Not really, as patronage has, both in the past and I hear sometimes in the now, has worked for the expectation of creation. The expectation of creation, and creation are not the same things. Eating can be achieve otherwise. The market will decide if a creation is worthy, and contrary to your immediate needs, they might make that decision after your demise. Oh, and none of that has to do with ‘pirating’ of electronic copies of something, that has to do with hardcopy, materialistic works of art. Read your history.

So we come to the tension between having an idea and trying to monetize it, or having an idea and giving it to the world. One still needs to eat. One way might make you rich, but then we need to define what ‘rich’ is. Is it solely monetary richness, or could it be something spiritual (see above)? The other way might give you sufficient notoriety to, well, become rich by being an innovator, but giving your ideas away. What might that difference be? Giving your documented (prior art) ideas to companies exclusively so that they might develop a product and be first to market could give a significant reward and not tie anything up in nefarious legal machinations.

Gene Mosher (profile) says:

1986 - The Mother of All Years

If you had visited my restaurant in Syracuse, New York in 1980 when you were about 10 years old you would have had your lunch ordered on an Apple ][ computer and printed in the kitchen. If you had visited my restaurant in Eugene, Oregon in 1986 when you were about 16 years old you would have had your lunch ordered on an Atari ST computer and printed in the kitchen.

I was the only person demonstrating anything on a touchscreen at the many computer and restaurant shows where I demo’ed what I had built between 1986 and 1995. I used to tell people that someday there would be touchscreens everywhere. I got a lot of smug laughs and dismissive comments from the computer professionals I talked to in those days but by working on my own I always ensured the freedom to do what I was doing. I never needed to try to predict the future because I was instead preparing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 1986 - The Mother of All Years

OK, off on a stock investment tangent, then. I am married to a nurse. In 1993 her employer allowed her to put her retirement monies in any Fidelity Fund of her (i.e., our) choice. We put the $15,000 she had in Fidelity Select Electronics and directed her ongoing contributions to also go there. It was trading at about $16 at the time. By December of 1999 the value of each share had risen to $260. Subsequent performance in Fidelity and other mutual stock funds has not been quite up to that standard but our retirement, which we are not enjoying was assured long ago and I continue my involvement in point of sale and other touchscreen software. The code is now available on GitHub where it is being modernized and is available for free to the entire world. The majority of what I do these days with the code is philanthropic. It’s been a very good ride; I anticipate that the next 30 years will be as exciting as the past 40 have been. That’s why I stay in the game.

Glenn says:

I was a senior in high school. It would be another 10 years or so before the term “computer” would mean anything more to me than “some black box business machine” …and then I started my long career in IT. N00bs today are pretty much the same as N00bs have always been–not very bright people continually impressed with their own innovations and never bothering to pay attention to the fact that they have actually innovated little or nothing (once a N00b, always a N00b).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Approaching 2019, the dynamics of innovation, product development and marketing are a world apart from what these dynamics were in the 70’s and 80’s. If I had an audience I believe that I would only try to explain to them that they individually should try to appreciate, and to never forget, that we all live on the shoulders of giants, and that the world we live in is so amazing that no one ever saw it coming or was able to foresee it. I would then conclude by reminding the audience that the world we live in now will soon disappear and be replaced by a world filled with realities which no one now can foresee. The only thing I can say about this world and the future will belong to those who can embrace it.

DannyB (profile) says:

Primitive Technology

When I look back to 1975, at the state of microcomputers, it is shocking how primitive the technology was. I can’t imagine 1968 computers made from stone knives and bear skins.

If you look at BYTE magazine from the period of 1975 to 1980 it is instructive to see just how much things advanced. The early home brew microcomputers were all unique. No software compatibility. Everyone had a custom way of interfacing a keyboard to their computer for example.

By 1977 we see the ‘holy trinity’ appear: Commodore PET, Apple II, and TRS-80. This was the start of software standardization on a large scale. (In just a couple years Radio Shack boasts of selling more computers than any other computer company ever — so I would say that really was a standard platform for software more so than any prior computer, but similarly for Apple II and Commodore PET.)

It still took until 1983 to get the Apple Lisa. And that was just a bit ahead of its time — what I mean is that the hardware still hadn’t caught up to the dream. It didn’t exactly fly off shelves. I don’t recall much 3rd party commercial software for it. In 1984 the original 128 K Mac, and that was just barely enough hardware capability to effectively build mass market GUI software for.

That is a real testament to how far ahead of its time this demo really was. On such primitive computing hardware of the day.

It is a trip back in time, but if you want to look at old BYTE magazines, they are here:

or higher res scans here:

and just for fun, Popular Electronics here:

Gene Mosher (profile) says:

Re: Primitive Technology

Indeed! I was one of the first Apple ][ users. My machine is serial # 753. I used it in one of my Syracuse restaurants to take orders from customers as they arrived in the front door, then printed their orders in the kitchen to very quickly prepare their meals. That was in 1980-84. The Floppy Disk drive that Steve W. had designed in 1978 was as important as the computer itself was. I recall spending $200 for a floating point card. Without both of those the computer was pretty useless, actually. Adding a Silentype thermal printer was a game changer, too, for what I was doing.

I regard Jack Tramiel’s Atari ST as the most exciting, and capable, home computer of the era, however. It was the one that made it possible for me to create the first graphical touchscreen point of sale computer. By 1985 Star Micronics was building the first commercial point of sale printer and MicroTouch was building touch screen sensors. A single PoS computer was a day’s work and about $4,000 worth of hardware in those days. Today there’s no work and the hardware cost is about $300. If you adjust that for inflation and factor in the labor it’s somewhere between one and two percent of what it used to cost. To compare what we could do with 320×200 resolution and what we can do now with 1920×1080, well, my god, it’s just scary. The software and hardware are so advanced that people just can’t imagine.

For me, the journey from 1968 to 1986, was the one that was every bit as exciting as anything that has happened since 1986.

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