At a time when computers were the size of Buicks and ran on punch cards, Dr. Engelbart led a team of researchers who conceived seminal ideas that helped build the modern computer industry and allowed the machines to become a staple of work and home life.
“With his help, the computer has become a friendly servant rather than a stern taskmaster,” the noted economist Lester Thurow told the Associated Press in 1997.
In addition to the mouse, Dr. Engelbart and his colleagues developed the concept of the digital workspaces now called windows, hypertext to conjoin digital files, and shared-screen teleconferencing.
Dr. Engelbart carried out much of his work in Menlo Park, Calif., working from 1957 to 1977 at the Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI International). He was regarded as an eminence in his profession who inspired generations of computer scientists, but he did not have the household name recognition of other early personal-technology innovators, such as Steve Jobs, whose company made the mouse a commercial success.
In 2000, Dr. Engelbart received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest award in that field. “More than any other person,” the citation read, “he created the personal computing component of the computer revolution.”
A window to the future
Perhaps no better illustration can be found of Dr. Engelbart’s egalitarian and utilitarian vision for the computer than his landmark 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”
In the paper, he described an architect drafting on a computer screen: “He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his ‘clerk’) with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices.”
At the time, the workplace description was a postcard from the future. While the paper intrigued the Defense Department, which provided him funding, his peers sometimes brushed off his talk of interactive computing, and his “think pieces” occasionally left colleagues baffled.
“That,” Dr. Engelbart later told the Christian Science Monitor, “was my first real awareness of what I’ve come to see as the biggest single problem” — the absence of a way to express futuristic concepts in modern-day terms.
Dr. Engelbart began work on another then-futuristic concept, the mouse, in 1964, after he built an $80,000 monitor and figured he needed a device to interact with the screen. He had served in the Navy during World War II as a radar operator and recalled using a light pen — a type of stylus fitted with a photocell — to control a cathode-ray tube, the technology that powered radar systems and early televisions. He theorized that a similar setup would work for the computer monitor.