Douglas Engelbart, computer visionary and inventor of the mouse, dies at 88

July 3, 2013

Douglas C. Engelbart, a computer science visionary who was credited with inventing the mouse, the now-ubiquitous device that first allowed consumers to navigate virtual desktops with clicks and taps, died July 2 at his home in Atherton, Calif. He was 88.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., where Dr. Engelbart had been a fellow since 2005, confirmed the death. The cause was kidney failure, his wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart, told the New York Times.

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.


Douglas C. Engelbart, a computer science visionary who was credited with inventing the mouse, the now-ubiquitous device that first allowed consumers to navigate virtual desktops with clicks and taps, died July 2 at his home in Atherton, Calif. (Courtesy of SRI International)

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.

With fellow SRI engineer William English, Dr. Engelbart tested all of the pointing gadgets available at the time and decided a contraption that would roll around on a desktop was fastest and most accurate. Working with English, he developed a thick wooden block that rolled on metal wheels and connected to the computer via a cord.

Officially, the device was called the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” but Dr. Engelbart’s lab dubbed it the “mouse” for its taillike cord.

“We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name,” Dr. Engelbart said later. “But it didn’t.”

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born Jan. 30, 1925, in Portland, Ore. He became interested in technology as a high school student during World War II when he heard about radar — an invention then so new and secretive that instruction manuals about it were kept in vaults, he said in a 1986 interview with Stanford University.

While stationed in the Philippines in 1945, he wandered into a hutlike Red Cross library and read an article in the Atlantic Monthly by the noted engineer and presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush that urged scientists to make humankind’s store of knowledge more accessible. The piece inspired Dr. Engelbart’s move into the nascent field of computing.

Dr. Engelbart received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University in 1948. In 1955, he received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.

He joined the Stanford Research Institute in 1957 as a researcher. Within SRI, he founded the Augmentation Research Center, which was funded by the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the Defense Department.

Simple plans

All computing projects Dr. Engelbart oversaw were propelled by his desire for simplicity.

Bill Duvall, an engineer who worked in Dr. Engelbart’s lab, told Computer Reseller News that when Dr. Engelbart interviewed job candidates, he would hand them a pencil with a brick attached to it with masking tape and ask them to write their name. If our writing tools were that unwieldy, he would demonstrate, people would never have learned to write.

Besides the mouse — for which he received a patent in 1970 — his research team’s innovations included the oN-Line System, or NLS, a project that allowed multiple users to share content through a central archive. Building on the work of computer scientist Ted Nelson, Dr. Engelbart’s team also developed hypertext, the underlying structure behind the World Wide Web.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Engelbart’s laboratory was one of the four initial sites to host ARPAnet, the Internet precursor, and was the first to host the Network Information Center, which would eventually become responsible for allocating Internet domain names.

Dr. Engelbart first showcased many of his innovations before more than 2,000 people at a 1968 conference in San Francisco. The event would one day be called “the mother of all demos.” Few in attendance had ever seen the mouse, hypertext, video conferencing, clickable desktop windows and other such technology.

“People were amazed,” English, the researcher who worked with Dr. Engelbart, told the New York Times in 1996. “In one hour, he defined the era of modern computing.”

But as Dr. Engelbart ventured into collaborative computing, in which several computers are joined together to complete tasks, his lab slowly unraveled.

After the 1968 demo, he began to focus on team-building through staff seminars rather than pursuing new breakthroughs. Some of his staff members complained about the trajectory of the lab, and some said they preferred to devote their time to tech projects rather than to personal development.

Cuts in funding from DARPA and the rise of other research centers such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center sped the exodus of most of Dr. Engelbart’s employees.

As his staff left for PARC, they took the concept of the mouse with them. The Xerox team outfitted Dr. Engelbart’s contraption with a track ball and packaged it — at the cost of several hundred dollars — with the Alto personal computer.

Then in 1983, Apple more widely commercialized the device with the Lisa computer. By the next year, the company was responsible for nearly half of the more than 500,000 mice sold.

Dr. Engelbart was not impressed with Apple’s adjustments to his invention, which originally had three buttons.

“Apple people so smugly said one [button] is what you need,” he later told the Toronto Star. “That’s like saying I’m going to chop off three fingers on my hand because they are superfluous.”

The mouse’s eventual universality did not make Dr. Engelbart rich. Though his name is on the patent, the royalties belong to SRI, which at one point paid him a $10,000 lump sum for the invention.

DARPA ceased its funding of Dr. Engelbart’s oN-Line System in 1974, and SRI sold the project in 1977 to Tymshare, a computer services and network company. In the early 1980s the system was sold again to the defense contractor McDonnell Douglas, where Dr. Engelbart then worked as a scientist for several years.

His first wife, the former Ballard Fish, died in 1997 after 46 years of marriage. In 2008, he married Karen O’Leary. Besides his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage; and nine grandchildren.

In 1989, Dr. Engelbart created the Bootstrap Institute with his daughter Christina Engelbart out of a small office in Fremont, Calif. To Dr. Engelbart, the term “bootstrapping” meant building a tool, testing it and then refining it. The organization gave management seminars in that field and in the mid-1990s received DARPA funding to perform technical work for the military.

He retired in 2008; today the Bootstrap Institute is known as the Doug Engelbart Institute.

In 1997, Dr. Engelbart received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for excellence in innovation.

Dr. Engelbart often tried to play down the role of the mouse in his legacy, arguing that his greatest invention was not a piece of hardware but rather making possible the once-“crazy” concept of making computers an integral part of workaday problem solving.

“Boy, I was hooked then,” he told Computer Reseller News, “and never got unhooked.”

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