Jul 03 2013

Remembering Douglas Engelbart

Published by at 5:21 pm under history of computers

Doug Engelbart showing his invention, the computer mouse

Doug Engelbart, at his 80th birthday party, showing the world’s first mouse on his dining room table.  Copyright Tom Munnecke.

It is with great sadness that I heard of the passing of Doug Engelbart, one of the true computer visionaries of the twentieth century. His memory brings back a flood of thoughts and emotions, of our many long sessions talking about technology and how to introduce technology change into society.

First mouse

Touching the world’s first mouse, at Doug Englebart’s 80th birthday party.

Although best known as the “inventor of the mouse,” he had much broader a much broader vision of how we interact with computers.

Although I new of his work since the 1970’s I first met him during while I was a visiting scholar at Stanford, in Sep. 2002.  I was giving a presentation about how systems scale and the “integration crunch.”  I saw this older gentleman in the audience, and by the time I finished my lecture, I noticed his eyes glistening with tears.  It turned out to be Doug, brought to the meeting by my friend Jack Park.  He said something to the effect that I had been a success in getting my technological ideas adopted, while he had been a failure.  Coming from the “guy who invented the mouse,” this was quite a statement.   We talked excitedly the rest of the afternoon, then went to a restaurant and continued talking excitedly until sometime after 10.  I said I had a flight to catch the next morning, and he asked to meet some more before my flight.

It’s hard to recall what we talked about 11 years ago, but the general theme was the he had a very large and encompassing vision for how we can use computers and communication to augment human intelligence.  At the same time, he seemed depressed that the only idea of his scheme that really took off was the mouse.  He complained that he would go to conferences, get standing ovations for his work with the mouse, but nobody ever took his other work seriously.

For example, he wanted the mouse to also have a “chording keyboard,” 5 buttons that could be pressed in combination to replace the standard keyboard.  He insisted that this was a necessary technology to move on to the other features of his system.  Unfortunately, the world has adopted the QWERTY keyboard, and this was a bridge too far.

He invented a version of an open hypertext system that preceded Tim Berners-Lee’s (re)invention of the web 20+ years later.   One of the key differences was that Doug’s approach required bi-directional referential integrity.  If A pointed to B, then B had to also point back to A.  Tim relaxed this restriction, allowing broken pointers, and the “404 not found” error.  Doug’s version was brittle (the same as Ted Nelson’s Xandu project, another hypertext system of the era).  If A changed, then B would also have to change, as well.  This would lead to an “n-squared” complexity problem – the complexity of keeping all the links synchronized would increase with the square of the number of nodes in the network.  Tim’s approach was delightfully pragmatic.  He realized that the value unleashed by allowing “good enough” linkages would far outweigh the disadvantages of specifying the “perfect” linkage model.  This distinction between being architectural “perfect” vs being “good enough” has reverberated in my thinking now for several decades.

Here are some of my notes I made after our first meeting:

1. Problems scale, yet our ability to generate solutions does not
2. We need to increase our collective IQ when working together in groups.
3. Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) and Meta NICs
4. His orientation to tools development, rather than application development. He focuses on tools for developing tools.
5. Facilitated evolution of technologies and organizations. The organization and the technology co-evolve in an upward spiral. The role of the visionary is to inject the next generation technology, one step ahead of the organization.
6. Adapt how to adapt – relates to his tools thinking.
7. Open Hyperdocument System (OHS) as infrastructure… good basic idea, but the web is rushing into this area anyway.
8. Hyperscope as tool for browsing the OHS… interesting, very similar to my earlier design ideas about a “HealthSpace browser” to browse a patient’s “HealthSpace”

He told me that he first got interested in this topic as a radar operator in the Korean War.  Looking at the graphical display of a radar, he wondered how he could represent computer information in a similar manner.  This lead him to windows, icons, mouse, cursor design with which we are all familiar with today.  But he saw the system as a “space” not a collection of “interfaced pieces.”  I noticed the same orientation towards spatial thinking in talking with Tim Berners-Lee in the early days of the web: it was a “space” for information to exist.  Similarly, the Wiki is a space for collecting pages.  (See my conversation with Wiki Inventor Ward Cunningham).  I had long thought that the next generation of Electronic Health Records should designed as an information space, not a collection of pieces.  He has given me valuable, enduring insights into how systems can work.

I suppose my most enduring memory of Doug is how he took a notion of “space” from a radar screen and translated it into an “information space” metaphor that billions of people use thousands of times per day.

Tom Munnecke holding first mouse


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