Saturday 8 December 2018

Doug Engelbart's Mother of All Demos (1968)

9th December 1968

Video conferencing, the computer mouse, hypertext and windowing systems, collaborative working, computer graphics, networks of computers… it all sounds very contemporary. But we are not talking about now – it is San Francisco in December 1968, and THIS is The Mother of All Demos.

Presented by Doug Engelbart, a pioneer of early computing and frankly a genius, this technology demonstration combined almost all the elements of modern computing decades before they hit the mainstream. Back in the 1960s, computers were seen primarily as number crunchers, but Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute were more interested in how humans could interact with computers and use them to extend their own capabilities.

Using a combination of modems, microwave links, video cameras, projectors and start-of-the-art computer equipment, Engelbart and his team wowed the thousand people or so watching his 90 minute presentation. And although the technology was being pushed to its limits, many of the audience were inspired to take the concepts and improve on them, including many other people who became pioneers in the early computing industry. Several of the ideas were picked up in the Xerox Alto five years later, and that in turn inspired the Mac and Windows operating systems.

The name “The Mother of All Demos” came much later of course, applied to the talk in the 1990s when the true extent of its influence had become apparent (and named after Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of All Battles” earlier that same decade). In retrospect, this was an under-rated but highly significant 90 minutes that helped to shape the future of technology, and that even 50 years later is still relevant. Although it took a while, from the late 1980s onwards Engelbart received many honours, including one from Bill Clinton. He died in 2013 aged 88.

The talk was recorded for posterity, and there are several versions available including an interactive and annotated one or a YouTube playlist showing the highlights, or a 17 minute version below.

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