Posts Tagged ‘SRI International’

Douglas Engelbart

May 14, 2019

This post was motivated by an excellent book by John Markoff titled “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground.” The Wikipedia credits Doug Engelbart with creating the field of human-computer interaction. Doug ran the Augmentation Research Lab at SRI International. He also created the computer mouse, the development of hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces. NLS, the oN-Line system developed by the Augmentation Research Center under Engelbart’s guidance with funding primarily from DARPA, demonstrated numerous technologies, most of which are now in widespread use; it included the computer mouse, bitmapped screens, and hypertext. Engelbart is credited with a law, appropriately named after him, that the intrinsic rate of human performance is exponential.

The following is taken from the Wikipedia article on Doug, “He reasoned that because the complexity of the world’s problems was increasing, and because any effort to improve the world would require the coordination of groups of people, the most effective way to solve problems was to augment human intelligence and develop ways of building collective intelligence.[6] He believed that the computer, which was at the time thought of only as a tool for automation, would be an essential tool for future knowledge workers to solve such problems. He was a committed, vocal proponent of the development and use of computers and computer networks to help cope with the world’s increasingly urgent and complex problems. Engelbart embedded a set of organizing principles in his lab, which he termed “bootstrapping”. His belief was that when human systems and tool systems were aligned, such that workers spent time “improving their tools for improving their tools” it would lead to an accelerating rate of progress.”

Returning to Markoff’s book, Doug stumbled across an article by Vannevar Bush, who proposed a microfiche-based information retrieval system called Memex to manage all the world’s knowledge. Later Doug deduced that such a system could be assembled based on the then newly available computers. He concluded that the time was right to build an interactive system to capture knowledge and organize information in a way that would now be possible for a small group of people to create and collaborate more effectively. So he was thinking of the world-wide web. It took time and resources and source code from Tim Berners-Lee to see the full scale implementation.

According to the Wikipedia article he retired in 1988 because of a lack of interest in his ideas and the funding to pursue them. One wonders what he could had achieved if others had understood his ideas and provided funding to support him.