Douglas Engelbart, 1925–2013

The computer visionary who invented the mouse

Douglas Engelbart set the computing world on fire in December 1968. Standing in a San Francisco conference hall filled with the nation’s top computer experts, he unveiled the pioneering technologies his experimental research group had been pursuing for the past decade at California’s Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart demonstrated such innovations as word processing, video conferencing, and desktop windows—13 years before the debut of the first IBM personal computer. He also showed how a mouse, which he’d invented four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. “People were amazed,” said fellow Stanford engineer William English. “In one hour, he defined the era of modern computing.”

Born in Portland, Ore., Engelbart became hooked on technology as a high school student during World War II when he heard about radar—a technology so secret that, rumor had it, the U.S. Navy kept its instruction manuals locked in a vault. “It all sounded so dramatic,” he recalled in 1986. He interrupted his studies in electrical engineering at Oregon State College to serve as a radar operator in the Philippines. After the war he finished his undergraduate degree in Oregon and then got a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley before joining Stanford in 1957. At a time when computers were the size of Buicks—and most of the humans interacting with them were scientists—Engelbart foresaw that this technology could help ordinary workers cooperate better to make the most of available information, said “Then he set about building the necessary tools to make that not only possible, but also easy.”

With the user in mind, his research team developed much of the technology that now underpins the Internet, including hypertext, which links digital files. Engelbart’s most famous invention, the mouse, was a product of necessity. After building an $80,000 monitor, he “figured he needed a device to interact with the screen,” said The Washington Post. Working with fellow engineer English, he developed a thick wooden block that rolled around on a desktop on metal wheels and connected to the computer via a cord. The device’s official name was the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” but Engelbart’s lab called it a “mouse” for its tail-like cable. “We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name,” said Engelbart. “It didn’t.”

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Although his work inspired generations of scientists, and was later used by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs in building their computer dynasties, Engelbart never became rich or a household name, said the Los Angeles Times. He received no royalties for the mouse, which had been patented by Stanford and later licensed to Apple, and in later years struggled to get funding for his research. “He wanted to help people solve problems, and he saw the world as having very significant problems,” said technology writer and critic Howard Rheingold. “That is not something you can get a patent on, start a company, or make a fortune on.”

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