Inspiring,” “visiOnary,” “hUMble,” “honest,” “impeccable integ- rity,” “passionate and stub- born about his work.” Tributes poured in for
Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the
computer mouse and an Internet pioneer, following his death from kidney
failure July 2 at his home in Atherton, CA. People from all echelons of
the technology community extolled
Engelbart’s enduring legacy and hailed
his more than six decades of work in
computer research and inventions as
not just innovative technology, but as
mechanisms that could transform the
world and solve society’s problems.
“Doug once said the least-important
things he did were his inventions, such
as the mouse,” recalls Alan Kay, president of the Viewpoints Research Institute (VRI), a nonprofit public benefit
organization on whose Board of Advisors Englebart served. “What was most
important [to him] was what he was trying to improve, and how he was trying
to improve it,” Kay said.
Kay said many of Engelbart’s key
contributions had to do with how ideas
and actions can be synergistically intercommunicated and constructed
into better forms and processes with
the aid of technological amplifiers.
Engelbart’s technology vision attract-
ed a devoted coterie of engineers who
shared his philosophy. “Doug had more
technical groupies than anyone I have
ever known. He touched and inspired
people way beyond technology,” recalled
Curtis Carlson, chief executive officer at
SRI International, where Engelbart held
one of his first technology jobs. “His im-
pact and legacy are still felt at SRI today.”
“No one before Doug thought about
the customer experience and the im-
pact it would have on corporations and
hundreds of millions of people world-
wide,” Carlson said. “There would be
“no Apple or Xerox PARC without Doug
Engelbart. …It was a magic moment
when Steve Jobs intercepted Doug
Engelbart at exactly the right time and
started using the computer mouse.”
“ Kay, the 2003 A.M. Turing Award re-
cipient, said Engelbart—the man and
his work—had a profound influence on
him. “Doug had some of the most sig-
nificant insights about humans, and
about how solving some of our most
important human problems could be
aided/augmented by the visionary use
In the 1960s, Kay witnessed Engel-
bart’s now-famous “Mother of All
Demos” presentation of interactive
computing designed to support collab-
orative work groups. “Doug inspired
funders and computer people to com-
bine to make a series of ‘living lab’ sys-
tems that both could demo some of the
ideas, and were also engineered and
fleshed out well enough to be put into
daily use,” Kay said.
Logitech CEO Guerrino de Luca
considered Engelbart “one of the most
under-recognized geniuses of our
times,” even though he received the
ACM A.M. Turing Award in 1997, and
received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President
Bill Clinton in 2000. Despite these
awards and any measure of recognition he managed to achieve, “Doug
stayed humble, curious, and accessible to ideas and people all his life,”
de Luca said.
Engelbart joined SRI (then known as
Stanford Research Institute) in the
1960s. His first assignment was working on magnetic devices and the miniaturization of electronics; he eventually
received more than a dozen patents for
his work. At SRI, Engelbart founded the
Augmentation Research Center (ARC),
where he and a team of about a dozen
engineers focused on developing new
collaboration and information processing tools. He and his team, which included lead engineer Bill English, developed bitmapped screens, the computer
mouse, hypertext, and initial steps toward the graphical user interface.
Engelbart and his team became
known for their intensity, devotion,
and committed work ethic. They had
endless discussions and debates and
were willing to work 12- and 15-hour
days, Carlson said. “In 2013, when we
have the Internet and ubiquitous con-
nectivity, it is not uncommon, but in
the context of the 1960s work ethos
where a 9-to- 5 workday was the accept-
ed norm, it was unheard of,” he noted.
Engelbart was well liked and respected by executives, colleagues, and
those who worked for him. “He was
soft-spoken, friendly, and approachable,” Carlson recalls.
Everyone interviewed for this article
said Engelbart was extremely tenacious,
which worked both for and against him.
Early in his career, Englebart’s passion
for his work and ideas had investors
flocking to fund him; by the 1980s, how-
ever, he struggled to find backers.
“His biggest quirk was being stub-
born and trying to stay 100 years ahead
of everyone,” Carlson said.
Kay said one of the great ironies of
Engelbart’s later career was that “He had
a harder and harder time getting heard,
because he stayed with his message.”
Ultimately, “visionary” was the word
used most often to describe Engelbart.
Carlson claimed that in addition to
his renowned “Mother of All Demos,”
Engelbart originated the concept that
technology speed and performance
double every two years, famously
known as Moore’s Law after Intel Corp.
co-founder Gordon Moore. “Doug was
the first person who gave a talk about
the performance scaling law for integrated systems,” Carlson asserted.
De Luca said Engelbart’s vision “of
bootstrapping Collective IQ, his passion in life, was a 50-year-plus vision.
His belief that technology is the key
to mankind’s ability to solve difficult
problems collectively has the transformative power that few others share.”
Laura DiDio is Principal analyst at Information
technology Intelligence Consulting (ItIC).
© 2013 aCm 0001-0782/13/09 $15.00
Remembering Douglas Engelbart
In Memoriam | DOI: 10.1145/2500468.2500481 Laura DiDio