Why you should care
Because sometimes we don’t give credit where credit is due.
Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are considered the Rockefellers, Fords and Carnegies of the Information Age. But once upon a time, there was another vision of the Internet — a radical one from a little-known contender who lost the Internet wars.
Even if you tweet, snap and poke, you’ve probably never heard of Douglas Engelbart, an engineer who died in 2013. But if you’ve ever clicked a mouse, video chatted or formatted a document, you’re using some of his landmark inventions. He was around long before the dot.com boom-and-bust, fighting an all-out battle over the future of the Internet that left coder corpses and unicorn blood in its wake. At the time, Engelbart was on the fringe, known for so-called crackpot ideas. “His mind flew on ahead, where you couldn’t see. Like Icarus, he tried to fly too far, too fast,” said lifelong friend and fellow computing pioneer Ted Nelson in his eulogy for Engelbart. “The wings melted off.”
We dance around in the costume party of fonts that swept aside his ideas of structure and collaboration.
Before Engelbart, computers were as big as rooms and used mostly for crunching numbers. But in the late ’60s, at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart invented almost everything your personal computer has today: a mouse, the marvels of hypertext, screen sharing and more. In the “Mother of All Demos” in 1968, he made real-time edits to documents nearly 40 years before Google Docs hit screens; video chatted with friends long before Skype’s 2003 arrival; and resized windows years before Microsoft entered the fray in 1975. Engelbart was adding graphics, hyperlinking and sharing screens like a nerdy wizard, preaching the gospel of the motherboard — all before the birth of the World Wide Web. “The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing,” said Engelbart, and as it turns out, he held all the right cards.
If he’d been British, Engelbart would have been knighted, but the Portland, Oregon, native instead lived out the rest of his years as an unsung hero, trying to fry even bigger fish in Silicon Valley. His blueprint of the Internet was radically different from today’s profit-driven, streamlined version. Engelbart imagined an information system built on the backbones of collaboration and education, all meant to amplify the collective human mind. He wanted a computerized network of real-time, human-wide collaboration, with the open-source spirit of Wikipedia and the purposefulness of Change.org. “He thought of [these goals] as crusades and missions for the public good,” says Engelbart’s daughter Christina, with whom he founded the Doug Engelbart Institute. And he wasn’t a fan of user-friendliness, insisting instead that we all learn to master the computer, rather than letting it control us: “Engelbart wanted a stick shift machine, and everybody else decided that automatic was the way to go,” says Thierry Bardini, author of Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution and the Origins of Personal Computing.
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Engelbart and his ideas were cast aside in favor of Johnny-come-latelies like Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, along with their profit-generating vision for personal computing, and a user-friendly approach to the Internet. Engelbart’s team of researchers abandoned him, and he was subordinated to a lesser position at a company called Tymshare while still wrestling with his pie-in-the-sky visions of a better world. Even worse, when Engelbart’s mouse invention gained widespread use years later, he never reaped the profits — it had been licensed to Apple for around $40,000, Engelbart revealed. Another blow came in 1976, when Engelbart’s house burned down while he and his family watched helplessly.
And if Engelbart had won? “Hard to say,” says Jefferson Bailey of the Internet Archive in San Francisco. The Web was bound to grow in ways its founders never intended, Bailey says. “Technologies evolve unpredictably,” he adds, noting his belief that the same “spirit of knowledge-sharing and collaboration” Engelbart tirelessly pushed for will one day become part of our fast-evolving Internet, even if a commercial layer clouds the original vision. But even so, fame is elusive; it often teases great thinkers like Galileo or Tesla, only to meet them decades after death. Granted, Engelbart was eventually inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 1998, and into the Pioneers Circle in the Internet Hall of Fame after his death, but the heart of his dream has yet to be realized.
Nelson, who declined OZY’s request for comments because “time is far too short,” reached the emotional crescendo of his eulogy by noting that while most people have a career, Engelbart had a quest. And Engelbart’s greatest frustration, Nelson added, was “that we dance around in the costume party of fonts that swept aside his ideas of structure and collaboration.”