Douglas C. Engelbart: From Mice To Windows

His info-tech innovations haven't changed society as fast as he hoped
As part of its anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles of the greatest innovators of the past 75 years. Some made their mark in science or technology; others in management, finance, marketing, or government. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation.

It's hard, but try to imagine -- or remember -- a world without the Internet, without e-mail, without Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) Windows operating system, without pull-down menus in computer programs, and even without the computer mouse. Then, in one fell swoop, one person unveils the underpinnings of them all.

That's what happened in 1968, when Douglas C. Engelbart took the stage at the mid-December Fall Joint Computing Conference in San Francisco. He was nervous, fretting the audience might dismiss his concepts for augmenting human intelligence as too far-out. But he needn't have worried. Over the next 90 minutes he demonstrated how he could edit a document interactively with researchers in a distant location -- his laboratory at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park, Calif. -- pointing and clicking a boxy mouse to switch among windows on a computer screen. The audience surprised him with a standing ovation. The event is now considered a watershed in the history of computing.

Yet Engelbart says his inventions have been slow to deliver the impact he wanted. Drawing on his experience watching radar images as a technician in the Navy during World War II, he had envisioned window graphics that would make computers easy to use. Then individuals, companies, and governments could tackle major issues collectively. Gradually this would enhance the way people think and learn. Today we have online teamwork and so-called learning organizations. But society has yet to exploit computers to boost human intelligence on the scale that Engelbart has been dreaming about since the 1950s.

With all his inventions now in daily use by millions of people, Engelbart must be a billionaire, right? Hardly. He has picked up some sizable cash awards, including $500,000 in 1997 when he was honored as an outstanding inventor by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the only bonus he earned from SRI for his 1963 invention of the mouse was $10,000, years after he left SRI to start the Bootstrap Institute in Fremont, Calif. As was customary in the 1960s, Engelbart assigned all his patent rights to his employer.

Never mind. At 79, as in his youth, Engelbart is driven more by the desire to make humanity smarter, not himself richer. And on this score, he believes there is a long way to go. Engelbart saw his 1968 prototype browser -- a combination of what was called groupware and hypertext (the "HT" in HTML, or hypertext mark-up language) -- as a two-way tool for sharing knowledge remotely, spanning distances, language barriers, and other social and cultural divides. His ideas helped spawn a huge marketplace for information technology. Still, he finds the rewards to society disappointing.

In Engelbart's view, the marketplace may excel at improving products and making them cheaper. But when it comes to coping with critical, global problems such as environmental degradation and access to fresh water, the market doesn't provide the necessary mechanisms and incentives, he says. It's not going to help us "discover the combination of technology and organizational changes that will produce effective solutions." For that, a higher order of shared intelligence is essential. When computing brings us closer to that plane, Doug Engelbart will be the first to cheer.

By Otis Port

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