Tributes to the genius of computer pioneer Doug Engelbart are flooding the web following the announcement of his death at the age of 88. Yet in the final four decades of his life no one would fund him and he felt he had wasted the last years of his life.
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His work transformed the way people use computers today by making them accessible and “personal.” His seminal demo of computer graphical user interfaces using a mouse and keyboard transformed people’s careers and changed the course of their lives — even for those that weren’t there but heard about it from others!
However, despite all the accolades and testaments to his genius, Silicon Valley largely ignored him and he spent decades trying to find funding for his ideas, and even someone just to listen to him.
Counter-culture and the PC
I met him in June 2005 following an event hosted at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 2005 celebrating the book launch of John Markoff’s, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
The event was supposed to be about the book, but it quickly turned into a tribute to Doug Engelbart, as John Markoff, and many members of the Homebrew Club, and former colleagues of his spoke about his incredible influence on their work, ideas, and how he changed their lives.
It seemed as if he was the Buckminster Fuller of Silicon Valley in terms of how insightful and how brilliant he was, in story after story shared by people at the event. Others compared him to Leonardo DaVinci.
I was astounded when an elderly man sitting behind me, was given the microphone and started to speak. It was Doug Engelbart. I’d assumed he had passed away a long time ago by the way everyone spoke about him in the past.
I was invited to a post-event dinner for the speakers and press at a local restaurant. I was late in arriving and everyone was already seated. Everyone had crowded onto a large circular table trying to be as close as possible to where New York Times reporter John Markoff was sitting.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Over on another large circular table, half-empty, sat Doug Engelbart. I asked him if I could sit next to him and we talked for hours. I walked out with a great story, a story that no one had written before, a story of a genius whose work was largely killed by the personal computer “revolution” and how he’d spent decades trying to find companies to fund his work and research.
It’s a story that shows Silicon Valley’s ignorance of its own history and its disgraceful treatment of truly inspired visionaries such as Doug Engelbart, in favor of celebrating PR-boosted business managers who say they are changing the world but don’t come close.
Pol Pot and the PC revolution…
As we spoke on that warm summer evening I listened to Mr. Engelbart tell me that the advent of the personal computer marked the end of his work on personal computer systems, and how he then was unable to find any funding over the following decades.
I was shocked. How was it that seminal work of such stature and importance, work that had been lauded so highly and eloquently at the Xerox PARC event a few hours ago, resulted in the exile of its originator, leaving him fund-less for decades?
Yet that’s what happened. Hearing his story, the story of the PC “revolution” became more like a story of Pol Pot in Cambodia turning back the calendar to the year zero and we then had to reinvent so much that we already had.
“We had personal workstations that sent messages on a network, we could split a screen remotely, we had email, we had spreadsheets, word processor, applications,” he said. This was in the early-70s well before we had the same capabilities on microcomputers from Apple, IBM, etc decades later.
Think of how far we could have come in terms of collaborative apps, augmented systems and more, if we hadn’t had to spend more than two decades reinventing what we already had.
Think of what else Doug Engelbart could have contributed if he had funding in the last 35 years of his life.
In 2005, Engelbart confided to me: “I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure. I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue.”
Power to be people…
His funding was based on the use of large computers connected to personal workstations that looked very much like PCs, a computer architecture called time-sharing.
But the microcomputer and its promise of being self-sufficient, unconnected to anything, was thought to be the future at the time. And the counter-culture with its hatred of “the Man” and centralized systems of power and oppression, rejected the time-sharing mainframe based computer architecture that underpinned the work of Mr. Engelbart and his colleagues. Big centralized systems were out of favor in the computer research communities and so was funding, which went to microcomputer based architectures.
The promise of the individual, power to the people, the ideals of radical self-sufficiency that ruled the counter-culture movement became enshrined in the promise of the stand-alone Personal Computer. It’s an example of how popular culture can affect something as seemingly distant and unconnected as computer architecture.
Reinventing the past
Today’s computer systems are essentially what we had with time-sharing mainframes in the 1960s and 70s: personal workstations connected to a large central computer system (server farm), able to communicate with each other and run spreadsheets, word processors, and apps.
Ross Mayfield, in an interview with Doug Engelbart in June 2005, writes:
“We herald the PC revolution, but we should remember that it made us forget to share. Timesharing enabled groups to share a common pool resource, sharing that, which impacted social dynamics. With PCs, we were left on our own, however empowered.”
He also points out that his work on keywords and tagging; and his work on computer augmentation to help solve some of mankind’s most difficult problems.
Silicon Valley lauds its pioneers but doesn’t know what to do with them if they keep living. Logitech, which made a lot of money from the computer mouse, one of Mr Engelbart’s creations, gave him permanent office space. And some of his supporters have provided modest amounts of money to enable him to keep working, as part of the Bootstrap organization, recently renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute.
Almost a decade later following our conversation, nothing much changed for Mr Engelbart. A lonely genius wandering for nearly 40 years amidst a desert of resources.
He died in the belief that there is an unfinished computer revolution, and with important unfinished work that he wasn’t able to complete.
Silicon Valley has lost not only one of its greatest computer pioneers, but also squandered an incredible opportunity to fund his work and see what else he could have created. What new platforms of innovation could have come from his work, what new hundred billion dollar industries might have emerged? It’s a truly tragic loss.