In 90 minutes you can watch a movie, read a few chapters of that novel you started over the weekend, take a good walk to disconnect or, if you’re Douglas Engelbart, give a conference that anticipates the paths that computing will follow in the remainder century, a talk so brutal, so illustrious, visionary or directly prophetic —Etiquette is the least of it!— that more than half a century later it is still remembered as “The mother of all demos”.
90 minutes, That’s it. What it takes to make a plum cake of chocolate.
In 1968 Engelbart, an engineer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), faced a dilemma. If his career could be compared to a game of poker, we could say that the time had come for him to score a manual “all-in”, play it and go for it all or nothing.
Together with his team at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), at SRI, he had been developing the oN-Line System for a few years, a system that facilitated the use of computers and even collaborative work. Among other tools, it incorporated resources such as hypertext links, graphical user interfaces or hardware that simplified its use.
With the image of garish mainframes and punch cards still in their pituitary glands, Engelbart’s team had devoted itself to an ambitious goal: to make computing more affordable, simpler, and more practical that would, in a way, help expand human capabilities.
play it all or nothing
And they were not bad in the effort. “Instead of punch cards, the On-Line System featured a radar-like screen with a graphical user interface (GUI) in which the user manipulated text, symbols, and video in a series of overlapping “windows.” For example , users can insert, delete, and move text within a document,” notes the Smithsonian. The tool even allowed several people to work on a document simultaneously.
As part of that peculiar crusade for computing simplicity, Staford also experimented with hardware that put the easiest things to users.
In ARC they took shape, for example, a “chord keyboard” that completed the QWERTY, a light pen and several prototype “controls” to operate the equipment, including one that was controlled with the knee and a wooden block provided with a cable. and wheel that, given its peculiar rodent-like appearance, ended up receiving the nickname “mouse”. Yes, more or less the Cro-Magnon of the mice that shortly after were incorporated into their Xerox and Apple computers and that you still use with your PC today.
All that was great, but in the background Engelbart and his people faced a problem almost as tricky as the development of new hardware: How to make such work visible?
The SRI engineer and Bob Taylor, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), one of its major financial backers, came up with a solution. It wasn’t groundbreaking, or even mildly original, but it could work: display all that baggage in one of the great showcases of the sector, the Fall Joint Computer Conference at the end of 1968.
If it went well it could be a bell. If it went wrong… Well, if things got complicated they would star in a resounding professional bump that would detract from the work they had been doing for years and, what was really dangerous, would jeopardize any future funding.
So no pressure.
“We took a huge risk,” recalled Engelbart later.
Willing to put all the meat on the grill, in March 1968 they requested a special session during the San Francisco congress and the die was cast: their speech would be held on December 9 of that same year at Brooks Hall, a venue with 2,000 seats. The title of the talk advanced where the shots would go: “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect“.
Today it may seem strange to us, but for Engelbart and his people the challenge was not only to play it all or nothing, calm the nerves and polish the message well. The conference itself represented a technological challenge in itself. If they wanted to demonstrate their capacity and to what extent it is revolutionary, they could not be squeamish about the budget: it was time to Throw the house out the window.
From the outset, the team needed to connect the auditorium in which Engelbart would intervene in December, in San Francisco, with the SRI offices where his team worked and where the mainframe was, a facility located in Menlo Park, about 48 kilometers from there. .
For months the ARC team spent months assembling the infrastructure, installing cameras in the SRI and auditorium, receiving antennas, transmitters, a microwave link, and a homemade modem so that commands from Engelbart’s console could be transmitted to Menlo Park.
The invoice that ARPA ended up disbursing amounted to 175,000 dollars, sum more than respectable for the time. A display of “virguerías” —you understand, it was 1968— so that the engineer could demonstrate, with the support of 17 ARC colleagues, what the On-Line System was capable of doing.
By December 9, 1968, the system was perfectly calibrated. And the nerves, of course, to the surface. At almost 44 years of age, Engelbart had already worked his way up in companies, university, had directed his own team and even participated in World War II; but that day in San Francisco he felt—he admitted it himself—as if he were driven by demons.
Today the recording of the lecture may seem old-fashioned, antediluvian, like those showing Neil Armstrong striding across the grainy surface of the Moon, but what Engelbart’s contemporaries saw with growing astonishment was a true display of genius.
Throughout 90 minutes in which nothing was heard in the room other than his explanations, the engineer talked about hyperlinks, videoconferences, shared documents and collaborative work, graphical interfaces based on windows, word processors or graphics.
As a climax, he even explained —remember at the National Museum of American History— that the SRI was about to become the second node of ARPANet, the forerunner of the Internet we know today. In 90 minutes, come on, which takes a decent nap, the Stanford engineer had mapped out some of the keys of computing for the rest of the century.
And all spiced up with demonstrations that today are part of the daily bread of computer science but that back then seemed almost science fiction props, like computer mice.
Continuing with the simile of poker, when Engelbart finished he verified that his bet had been a good one: when he stopped speaking in the auditorium the applause of his colleagues began to thunder. “people were amazed”, would explain decades later one of his colleagues from the SRI, William English, when New York Times: “In one hour, it defined the era of modern computing.”
Things in life that Engelbart and the rest of his collaborators at SRI were able to see and even point the way to does not mean that they were called to champion its development.
Shortly after that 1968 display of talent, the team began to falter in its drive. Some of the staff questioned the drift of the laboratory, funding was lost, other talent centers emerged, such as Xerox in Palo Alto (PARC)… And, quite simply, some of the people who worked with Engelbart ended up looking for new destinations, taking with her what I learned.
For a time, many people actually believed that the mouse was a Xerox invention. That they were not the ones in charge of taking the next step does not detract from them.
The veteran engineer not only drew a good part of the computing of the 20th century with the aim of a biblical prophet; It also helped, and perhaps this is just as relevant, for many people to change their image of computing: stop seeing it as an inaccessible world, plagued by huge, complex, corporate machines and designed only for leading laboratories and firms, and move on to understand it as a useful tool for the day to day of the workers.
Not a weapon. Not a complicated gear. Nor as a way to replace human effort. No. A complement, a way to take the capabilities a little further, to push the limits. As I was already advancing in the title of his talk: “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect“.
“If you had a computer-backed display in your office that was active for you all day and responded instantly to all your actions, how much value could you get from that?” Engelbart hooked his audience that fall of 68
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