RIP Doug Englebart


It truly is a sign of how far we have come since the advent of the computer age when its key architects begin to shrug off the mortal coil; RIP Doug Englebart, inventor of the computer mouse, one of the main proponents of computer networks and pioneer of video-conferencing. Stick with TechWench as we pay tribute to one of the founding fathers of the Digital Revolution.

RIP Doug Englebart

A young Englebart, fresh out of University with a Bachelors in Electronic Engineering and no clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life, wrote himself a plan for how he wanted his life to proceed. A plan which a lot of people could apply to their own lives as it is a plan of honour and humanistic intent;

1. Focus your career on improving the world
2. Any attempt to improve the world requires organised efforts
3. Harnessing the combined intellect of contributors would lead to effective solutions
4. Improving the capability of the humans to interact with each other was key to humanities future, the sooner the better
5. Computers could help achieve these goals

Fairly comprehensive and it worked too, Englebart used his experience as a radar technician in WW2 to envision a world of intellectual workers combining their efforts via interlinked computers. He knew that simple computers could be made to display information on a screen, he knew that enabling the development of these systems would lead to a new age of co-operation among mankind. Firstly he had to widen the scope of computers which were seen as clunky super calculators back in 1951 when he first embarked upon realising his vision for the future.

By 1962 the man had some dozen patents to his name for a range of technologies which are still in use today; data storage techniques and miniaturisation processes would be key to his vision of workers combining their efforts and of disseminating computer technology to the masses. This enabled him to write a paper entitled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. A paper which you would do well to read as it shows the true potential of a networked society outside of cats and Facebook. ARPA (now DARPA) certainly saw the benefits of his ideas even if they didn’t wholly understand them as yet and funded Englebart over the creation of some of his most famous inventions; the computer mouse (the importance of this speaks for itself), hypertext (allowing for websites to exist), bitmapped screens (a massive precursor to the GUI, which he also developed) and many more key principles such as collaborative tools on a computer network allowing multiple workers to access the same project files.

Despite holding the patent on the computer mouse; Doug Englebart never profited from the device. Does this not show how much value the man put in his plan? The fact he was willing to forego fame and fortune in much the same way as Dr. Salk gave away the polio vaccine to all mankind, it speaks volumes of the man’s character and vision. The Stanford Research Institute didn’t see the value of the computer mouse and so licensed it to Apple for a paltry $40,000 and now the technology is synonymous with computing, chances are you have one by the side of you as you read this. If viewing on a phone then perhaps you can pay tribute to his ideals of a connected world, the man was critical in the development of ARPAnet without which we would have no internet today for you to even view this website, let alone be able to view it in the palm of your hand.

Englebarts far reaching vision of the future however was less understood by his colleagues and less so by his funding providers. Slowly falling into obscurity over the course of the 70s as the radical graduates he had trained favoured the approaches of distributed, personal computing over the ideals of a centralised networked society. The inherent distrust of authority is what led the home computing revolution, or perhaps his idealistic computer science graduates saw the market value in rolling out the technology to homes across the world and tempered their ideals somewhat when the job offers rolled in.

This titan of computing intellect has since found his rightful recognition as grand-wizard of computing technology, bringing it from the lab to the home. Enabling the development of computer networks was certainly a winning vision he laid out in his life-plans some 63 years ago, a plan he stuck to regardless of whether the military, academia or business investors understood that vision. He knew how valuable the technology would be to humanity, he certainly knew how valuable it would be to him as he saw his ideas and technology rolled out to the masses and yet he profited little from any of his ideas knowing that The Ole Profit Motive would get in the way of true benefits to mankind.

So; TechWench pays tribute, respect, Kudos and bows to Doug Englebart, Father of the Networked Society.

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