Who Invented the Computer? Douglas Engelbart and the Mother of All Demos

Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-eighth installment in our ongoing series.

What was the "Mother of All Demos"?

As the 1960s dawned, computer manufacturers were creating machines that were increasingly more powerful and efficient. Computers were also spreading across the country, becoming commonplace on university campuses and in government agencies and corporate office buildings.

A tumultuous decade, the Sixties saw the rise of the counterculture, including hippies, drugs, the anti-war movement, and assassinations of prominent public figures. In addition to a distrust in the "establishment," there was a growing anti-computer movement. While engineers and other professionals were comfortable working with computers, non-tech people felt uneasy about what might be done with all the personal data being compiled and analyzed by mechanical brains.

Numerous colleges and universities experienced student protests warning of the potential misuse of private data. These fears even reached Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. when the Johnson administration unveiled a plan to centralize all government data into a single government-controlled database. Numerous senators and congressmen thundered against that plan during energetic floor speeches.

To the uninitiated, computers were data-crunching, refrigerator-sized machines understood and operated by specially trained individuals using punch cards and teletype terminals. Not surprisingly, the industry wasn't much concerned with changing that image until Douglas Engelbart, the head of the Augmented Research Center (ARC) at Stanford University submitted a proposal to the Department of Defense (DOD).

Computing for the people

Engelbart's proposal focused on how computers could augment human intellect. Intrigued, the DOD gave him a grant. Before long, Engelbart and the ARC crew were experimenting with ways to make computers interactive.

Engelbart envisioned computers as general-purpose tools that could optimize humanity's need to communicate and collaborate. He felt that keyboards and screens would make computers more humane and personal, as well as operable by ordinary people without the need for special training. His goal was for computers to "help humanity cope better with complexity and urgency."

The ARC team eventually developed numerous fundamental elements of modern computing and, realizing how groundbreaking their advances were, they were determined to show the entire industry. They eventually convinced the Association for Computing Machinery to let them exhibit at their fall computer conference in San Francisco in December 1968.

The cost of the demonstration was $175,000 (about $1.4 million today), but since the feds were paying for it, the ARC crew moved ahead. Preparations included transporting their equipment including the giant 22-foot-tall display screen to the auditorium from Menlo Park, 35 miles away. They also leased two video circuits from the phone company and set up receiver/transmitters on top of the auditorium, the ARC building and on back of a truck parked midway between Menlo Park and the demo site.

Prior to the presentation, the industry had consistently and overwhelmingly rejected the idea of interactive computing. It had been thoroughly discussed in previous conferences and always rejected as being "too expensive," and a "pipe dream."

The more than 1,000 attendees at the conference felt the same way, openly scoffing at the idea of noncomputer engineers using computers, claiming it was too farfetched and straight out of sci-fi. A sizable portion of the industry thought Engelbart as a "crackpot."

A latter-day Moses

On Dec. 9, Engelbart walked onto the conference stage and, speaking in a mild-tone that belied the impact of his demonstration, began a 90-minute tour de force on computer usage for the future.

Rather than just explain the ARC's accomplishments, Engelbart demonstrated them on the large screen in real-time. Using a small handheld device he called a "mouse" to move the cursor around the screen, Engelbart highlighted text and resized windows with ease and even displayed a real-time video-teleconferencing of ARC members back at Menlo Park. He also showed how computers could be useful for ordinary tasks by creating and editing a shopping list.

During his presentation, Engelbart successfully demonstrated the following concepts and technologies on the ARC system:

- Graphical control windows
- Hypertext
- Computer graphics
- Navigation and command input on a computer screen
- Video conferencing
- Word processing
- Dynamic file linking
- Revision control
- Real-time collaborative editing

Modern-day computer users would easily recognize Engelbart's setup, but to an audience working with punch cards and printouts, it was astounding with many exclaiming out loud that they couldn't believe what they were seeing. When Engelbart finished speaking, they gave him a standing ovation and crowded around to ask questions.

One prominent attendee, Alan Kay, later known for his work on graphical user interfaces, said of Engelbart's performance, "It was like Moses parting the Red Sea."

Engelbart's demonstration impacted the computer industry like nothing had before. Although the official name of the presentation was "A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect," over time it would be retroactively dubbed "The Mother of All Demos." By designing, building, and presenting a holistic system to demonstrate concepts and functions most considered impossible, the ARC team opened minds to the vast possibilities of interactive computing and set the industry on a path of hyper-innovation and advancement.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.