Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Birth of The New

Doug Englebart using the chord keyboard

On December 9, 1968, a researcher at the Stanford Research Institute named Doug Englebart gave a presentation at the Fall Joint Computer Conference that introduced many of the computing concepts that we now take for granted, fifteen years before anyone in the general public ever heard of them. Englebart and his remote colleagues Don Andrews and Jeff Rulifson in Menlo Park (home of SRI, 30 miles south of San Francisco, where the demo was held) showed the first computer mouse to the public there, the first rasterized (drawing-capable) video monitor, the first live teleconferencing, the first inter-user messaging system (forerunner of email), the first use of hypertext (forerunner of the web) and even a rudimentary form of what became the internet.

Doug Englebart speaking

This demonstration was later called "the mother of all demos" by author Steven Levy, a phrase which has become rather oddly famous, because while it's more or less true, it's also kind of dumb. But nevertheless.

Console with chord device, keyboard, and mouse

Remember, this was before history. The personal computer had been developed; no PC, no Mac. No one on earth had a computer in his or her home; if you wanted to do computing, you went to a computer center at your university or business and sat at a console which probably didn't even have a text-only monitor; your only display was a TTY, a printer with a roll of pin-feed paper. No graphics of any kind, except for early forms of ASCII art (pictures made from typed letters). No windows, no icons, no menus, no nothing except a command line waiting for your typed, punch tape, or punch card input.

I used one of these computers, with punch tape and a TTY, in high school in 1973; I don't remember what model it was, but it was a mainframe belonging to the Dallas School District, and we connected to it via an antique modem at probably 50 baud. We used cartons and cartons of pin-feed paper, writing our stupid little BASIC programs (I remember helping write a not-very-successful bowling game) and printing out our terrible ASCII art. I remember getting yelled at (not too forcefully) for using too much expensive connect time. Of course, there was nothing like an internet nodes anywhere near us then. That was five years AFTER Englebart's demo of technology that was to become so important decades later, but totally unimaginable to us hobbyist fiddlers.

Don Andrews demonstrating the potentiometer mouse; note the cord traveling the wrong way, under the hand

Englebart changed everything on this day. While his vision for computing was ultimately unsuccessful -- he didn't accept the emergence of the PC in the 1970s, for instance -- his ideas were unusually revolutionary and ahead of their time even in an industry marked by rapid advances. The mouse didn't really catch on until the Apple Macintosh in 1984, for instance. The internet, then called ARPANET, didn't come online until 1969, and wasn't opened to the public outside of universities and research companies until the late 1980s. But it was all here at this demo, at least in part.

Programmer Jeff Rulifson

I knew most of this from reading books. What I didn't know is that video exists of this historic event. You can watch it here (streaming Real Audio with good descriptive text) or here (Flash). Finding this video is rather mind-blowing; to me it's like finding video of the apple falling on Newton's head. This is the birth of a new world, even if no one but a thousand geeks knew about it for another decade. It's probably the most boring video in the world to most people, but if you're interested in seeing where all this internet stuff came from, this is the source. At least watch the first mouse segment here if you can.

This post is illustrated with some screenshots I grabbed. This is real nerd action the way it should be!


arduous said...

What a great post. Thanks for the history lesson. I'll check the video out.

Mary Jo said...

That was very fun and interesting to read. I even looked at the video.

Those people that were once considered nerds are pretty cool these days.

Eric said...

I had no idea the term "mouse" dated all the way back to 1968. Thanks, Fnarf: the mouse video was worth the price of admission all by itself. What a liberating notion it was, that you don't need your pointing device to have great fidelity, because you're not e.g. trying to faithfully reproduce a map by tracing over it, but instead using the mouse in a closed feeback loop, which takes care of nonlinearities, stray cross-dimensional coupling, etc. So you can get precise pointing with cheapo hardware. It's kind of obvious in retrospect, because that's the way _people_ work (we don't need to launch the tines of our fork at the tiny pea on our plate accurately from two feet away, but instead vector it all the way in to the target.) But lots of ideas are obvious in retrospect...
Anyway, now I know where to find hot nerd action on the internet.
Eric from Boulder