The Mother of All Demos: 90-Minutes That Revolutionized Computing

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Podcast Transcript

Almost every single person listening to this podcast right now is doing so on some sort of personal computing device. 

Many of the things that we consider part of a modern personal computer, windows, hyperlinks, a mouse, and a text editor, all were released upon the world in a single 90-minute demo in 1968. 

The ideas were so advanced it would take over two decades before most of them found themselves in everyone’s homes. 

Learn more about the Mother of All Demos and the birth of personal computing, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Despite what you might think, the personal computer didn’t start with Steve Jobs and Apple, or Bill Gates and Microsoft. 

To be sure, they had an important role to play, but all of the major innovations we associate with personal computer software were actually developed before Apple or Microsoft existed.

In particular, most of these ideas were developed by one man and the researchers at his laboratory: Douglas Engelbart.

If you don’t recognize his name, you probably should. 

Doug Engelbart grew up on a farm outside of Portland, Oregon during the Great Depression. 

He enrolled at Oregon State for electrical engineering and like almost everyone else in his generation, he joined the military in World War II. He enlisted in the Navy and became a radar technician. 

After the war, he returned to college and completed his degree in 1948. He then went to work at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. 

The NACA was the predecessor to NASA. 

After serving in the war, he wanted to direct his energies towards peaceful purposes and he saw the potential in the electronic computer. 

In 1951, there were very very few computers in the world. Those that did exist were enormous behemoths that took up entire rooms or buildings and ran on vacuum tubes, as the transistor hadn’t even been invented yet. 

The primary use for computers was to do complex calculations for things like ballistics or atomic bomb testing, which would be too difficult and time-consuming for humans to do by hand. 

As a 25-year-old engineer just starting out, Doug Engelbart had an astonishing flash of insight into what computers could be. In an interview he did years later with Wired Magazine, he said, 

All of a sudden – wham! – I got an image of myself sitting at a big CRT [cathode ray tube] screen with all kinds of symbols on it, new and different ones, manipulated by a computer that could be operated through various input devices. All the material on the screen could be controlled with great flexibility. Other people had their display units tied to the same computer complex, and you could connect them. Everybody could share knowledge. The vision unfolded rapidly, in about a half-hour, and suddenly the potential of interactive, collaborative computing became totally clear.

Given the ubiquity of computing power today, it is hard to understand just how far-fetched this vision was at the time. 

Computers were expensive, and computing time was extremely valuable. The idea of wasting precious computer time manipulating objects on a screen would have come across as ridiculous. 

Moreover, in 1951, TV sets weren’t even very common yet. Only 23% of US households had televisions at that time. 

So, the idea of using a computer for anything other than just raw number-crunching back in 1951 was in the realm of pure science fiction. 

Doug quit his job at NACA and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at the University of California Berkley. 

In 1955 he got his Ph.D. on a topic that really had nothing to do with computers, and eventually wound up at a private R&D firm called the  Stanford Research Institute, or SRI.

While at SRI, Doug began to hone his ideas on human-computer interactions. In his vision, computers wouldn’t just be used for calculation, they would be used to augment the human intellect. 

He saw teams of people working collaboratively on computers that were linked together. He saw computers handling the grunt work for searching for information, which was otherwise time-consuming. 

In 1962 he put his ideas together in a seminal paper titled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” One of the big themes of the paper was using networked computers to allow humans to work on collaborative problem-solving.

The ideas put forth in this paper expanded and provided a more concrete path for ideas put forward years earlier in Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay,  “As We May Think”.

These ideas were great, but unless they could get implemented, they would remain just that. Ideas. 

Doug Engelbart wanted to make his ideas a reality. 

So in 1963, he began looking for funding to set up his own lab to investigate human/computer symbiosis. He received money from NASA, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, and the US Air Force. 

With this, he opened up the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) within the Stanford Research Institute. 

He and his team began work on what he called the oNLine System or NLS. Just to explain, because it is sort of a confusing acronym, the NL comes from the NL in oNLine. I have no idea why they named it that, but NLS it was. 

The team worked for five years developing working models of graphical user interfaces for computers. They experimented with various computer input devices. They created a system where users could work together on a document in different facilities. 

Everything they did was designed to humanize the computer to make it easy for humans to use.

All of their work came to fruition in December 1968. It was time to show everyone exactly what he had been talking about for years. 

He was given a 90-minute keynote presentation at the annual computer science conference of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. It was to take place in a 2,000 seat auditorium.

This demo of the NLS system was a huge risk. If you have ever given a live demonstration of computer software, you know why. Things can go wrong. Computers can crash. 

If this demo flopped, Englebart’s lab could lose funding, and the entire project could be set back years. 

The trick for this demo is that computers were still pretty big. He couldn’t just get on stage with a desktop computer because those didn’t exist yet. 

He was going to be on stage in San Francisco in front of a console, but the computer was going to be 30 miles away in Menlo Park. The connection was two custom-built 1200 baud modems. The computer everything was running on was a Scientific Data Systems SDS-940

Television cameras were set up in both San Francisco and in Menlo Park with a custom microwave connection between the two locations to share the video signal. 

They even had a four-channel video controller so they could project Doug’s face mixed in with the monitors on the screen in the hall. The screen images literally came from a camera pointed at the screen. 

The 90-minute presentation totally changed the course of computer history. 

Doug demonstrated the first graphical user interface. He showed working hyperlinks. He demonstrated the concept of a floating window. 

He showed the world’s first wordprocessor and the ability to edit and delete text in real-time.  He showed how he could copy and paste text and move it around on the screen. 

He and a colleague back in Menlo Park jointly worked on a single document in different locations on the same computer. 

He was able to move around on the screen because of a device he and his team created which allowed you to manipulate objects on a screen with your hand. 

They called it, a mouse. 

He also announced that in a few months, SRI was going to become the second node in a new network called ARPANet. The predecessor of a little thing we call, the Internet. 

When the demo ended and the lights came on, everyone in the audience was standing and cheering. 

After years of just talking about it, Doug Englebart was finally able to show people what he meant. Once they could see it, everyone understood immediately. 

Prior to this demonstration, many people in the world of computer science thought that Doug Englebart was a crackpot because no one could understand what he was trying to do. 

In an hour and a half, he went from madman to genius. 

The immediate impact of the demonstration in the world of computer science was almost nothing. 

What Englebart and his team had done was so far ahead of everyone else, that they couldn’t adopt these things if they wanted to. They were still in a world of punch cards. 

Doug’s team eventually drifted apart and many of them got positions at other companies. In particular, many of them went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC.

In 1973, almost 5 years after Doug Englebart’s demo, Xerox released the first computer designed with a graphical user interface: The Xerox Alto. It could be considered the world’s first personal computer, albeit one that was the size of a small cabinet. 

Xerox improved on many of the ideas developed for NLS and also built a better mouse. 

A 1979 visit to Xerox PARC was the source of inspiration for Steve Jobs to create a computer with a mouse and a graphical user interface called the Macintosh. 

That of course led to Windows, Linux, and every other graphical computer operating system in the world today. 

You can see the world’s first computer mouse which was used in the demonstration, which was nothing more than a hollow block of wood, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. 

In his 1994 book “Insanely Great”, journalist ??Steven Levy dubbed Englebart’s presentation, “the mother of all demos”. 

The entire demo was recorded and is available viewing on YouTube. 

In 2000, Engelbart was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest technical award in the United States. 

Douglas Engelbart passed away in 2013 at the age of 88. He lived long enough to see his ideas turned into reality. 

His ideas of what a computer could be, long before it was even possible to implement, became the basis of how almost every person on Earth interacts with a computer today. 


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener John Thimakis over at Castbox. He said,

I love these short but informative and important events in history. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, John! I’ve had a lot of new listeners who are listing on Castbox in the last two months. If you are a Castbox listener, I’d just like to remind you that you can leave reviews on the app. 

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