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The Mother of All Demos

The first prototype of a computer mouse, as designed by Bill English from Engelbart's sketches.[1]

"The Mother of All Demos" is a name given retrospectively to Douglas Engelbart's December 9, 1968, computer demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. The live demonstration featured the introduction of a complete computer hardware and software system called the oN-Line System or more commonly, NLS. The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). Engelbart's presentation was the first to publicly demonstrate all these elements in a single system. The demonstration was highly influential and spawned similar projects at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. The underlying technologies influenced both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interface operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s.

The demo

Engelbart had assembled a team of computer engineers and programmers at his Augmentation Research Center (ARC) located in Stanford University's Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the early 1960s.[2] His idea was to free computing from merely being about number crunching and for it to become a tool for communications and information-retrieval.[3] He wanted to turn Vannevar Bush's idea for a Memex machine into reality, where a machine used interactively by one person could "Augment" their intelligence.[3] Over the course of six years, with the funding help of both NASA and ARPA,[4] his team went about putting together all the elements that would make such a computer system a reality. At the urging of ARPA's director, Robert Taylor, the NLS would make its first public appearance at the fall 1968 Joint Computer Conference.[5]

The conference session was presented under the title A research center for augmenting human intellect.[6] Approximately 1,000 computer professionals were in attendance at Brooks Hall in San Francisco to witness the presentation.[7] Notable attendees in the audience included Alan Kay, Charles Irby and Andy van Dam,[8] as well as Bob Sproull.[9]

Engelbart, with the help of his geographically distributed team, and with Bill English directing the presentation's technical elements, demonstrated NLS's functions.[Note 1] The presentation used an Eidophor video projector that allowed the video output from the NLS computer to be displayed on a large screen so the audience could see what Engelbart was doing. As well, live video of him and his associates from ARC in Menlo Park, about 30 miles away, was combined with the computer's output on the Eidophor. The Augment researchers also created two customized high-speed modems to transfer data from their Menlo Park headquarter's SDS-940 computer to the computer workstation at Brooks Hall.[Note 2] In order to provide live two-way video between the lab and the conference hall, two microwave links were used, relayed by a microwave van near the summit of a hill that overlooked both sites. English also commanded a video switcher that controlled what was displayed on the Eidophor's screen. The camera operator in Menlo Park was Stewart Brand — at the time, a non-computer person, best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog — who also advised Engelbart and the team about how to present the demo.[11]

During the 90-minute presentation, Engelbart used a mouse to move around the screen, highlight text, and resize windows.[12] This was the first time that an integrated system for manipulating text onscreen was presented publicly.[12][Note 3] Engelbart would simultaneously appear on a portion of the projected screen, along with the computer's output and then demonstrated collaborative editing and teleconferencing. At separate times, his Augment associates Jeff Rulifson and Bill Paxton appeared in another portion of the screen to help edit the text remotely from ARC. While they were editing they could see each other's screen, talk and see each other as well. He further demonstrated that clicking on underlined text would then link to another page of information, demonstrating the concept of hypertext.[2]

When he finished the demonstration, the audience gave him a standing ovation. To further demonstrate the system, a separate room was set aside so that attendees could take a closer look at the NLS workstations and ask Engelbart questions. Despite the SDS-940 crashing earlier in the day, the presentation went off without any major technical glitches.[2]


Douglas Engelbart in 2008, at the 40th anniversary celebrations of "The Mother of All Demos" in San Francisco.

Prior to the demonstration, a significant portion of the computer science community thought Engelbart was "a crackpot."[12] When he was finished, he was described as "dealing lightning with both hands."[14] Van Dam was working on a similar system, but had only begun work on it in 1967, and was stunned to see how mature NLS was: he practically accosted Engelbart with his line of questioning in the post-presentation question and answer session.[15] After he finished interrogating Engelbart, van Dam agreed the NLS demo was the greatest thing he ever witnessed.[15] Van Dam would go on to become a leader in teaching computer graphics in the 1970s.

As the seventies started, much of Engelbart's team departed ARC and went their own ways, with many of them ending up at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC). Among these people were Bill English, who would further improve upon the mouse.[2] Also migrating to PARC was Engelbart's former backer at NASA and ARPA, Robert Taylor.[16] Alan Kay, also in attendance at the demo, would go on to design an object-oriented computing environment called Smalltalk while he was at PARC.[12] By 1973 the Xerox Alto was a fully functional personal computer similar to the NLS terminal that Engelbart demonstrated in 1968, but much smaller and physically refined. With its mouse driven GUI the Alto would go on to influence Steve Jobs and Apple's Macintosh computer and operating system in the 1980s.[17] Eventually, Microsoft's Windows operating system would follow the Macintosh and use a multi-button mouse like the Alto and the NLS system did.[1]

In many ways, Engelbart's influence peaked at the conference, and he was a mostly forgotten figure throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, due to the next generation of computer innovators and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates becoming successful. However, on the demo's 30th anniversary in 1998, Stanford University held a major conference to celebrate it and Engelbart.[18] By the time the 40th anniversary was

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