- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]
In 1950, Douglas Engelbart had a good career: He was employed by the NACA Ames Laboratory, the precursor to NASA, where he worked on wind tunnels and other feats of engineering. He liked to hike and dance and by 1951, he met the love of his life. But he wasn’t entirely happy.
“I realized that I didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after,” he recalled. He decided he wasn’t going to settle for less than leading a life in which he could give something back – something big – to the world to make it a better place. So he set a lofty goal for himself: He wanted to focus his life on using computer technology to augment human intelligence so people could more efficiently solve important problems facing the planet.
Engelbart set out to obtain his Ph.D., then founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, which made it a mission to enhance the way people interacted with computers. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the research center unveiled some truly earth-shattering technologies, such as hypertext (which is what the “HT” in HTML stands for), video teleconferencing and a complex filing system for the storage and retrieval of electronic documents. These are all things we take for granted now, in this age of clouds and apps and Facetime chats, but at the time, Engelbart’s work was considered groundbreaking. So groundbreaking, in fact, that when he unveiled some of the projects the research center was perfecting, demonstrated via a 90-minute live teleconference with his staff members in 1968, some thought Engelbart was trying to pull off a futuristic hoax and scoffed at him.
Engelbart eventually faded into obscurity as technology advanced, and in the end, it’s not his work on the early technology that made the Internet and video chatting possible that Engelbart is best known for. It’s another humble bit of wired technology he created for which people remember him best: the computer mouse. The prototype didn’t look visionary – in fact, it was very primitive, constructed from a block of wood, some wiring and a red pushbutton on top – but it (and Engelbart) changed modern computing forever.
As for the name of the device, Engelbart never could remember why they decided to name it after a rodent: “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart said. “It started that way and we never changed it.”
Engelbart died after a battle with kidney failure and Alzheimer’s disease.