Interview with Douglas Engelbart
Smithsonian Computer History
OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Transcript of a Video History Interview with Mr. Doug Engelbart
Winner of the Computerworld Smithsonian Award, 1994
Interviewer: Jon Eklund
Division of Computers, Information, & Society
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Location: Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., May 4, 1994
TABLE OF CONTENTS
* Oregon Background
* RADAR and the Navy
* New Ideas for Computers
* Augmenting Human Intellect
* Enter ARPA
* Augmenting Systems
* On to Xerox PARC
* Tired Approaches Towards Computers
* New Paradigms
* Combining Chords
* New Ideas/Old Traditions
* Outline Processor
* Management Organization and Transformation
* Boot-strap Work
* Dividing Times
* Exodus to Xerox PARC (Revisited)
* NLS and the Alto
* The Outsider
Jon Eklund (JE): I want to ask you something about your education and
background you went to High School, where was that?
Doug Engelbart (DE): In Portland, Oregon
JE: Portland, I know you were born there and then after High School...?
DE: I started in Oregon State college in Corvallis (sp) and I guess that was
1942, I think. I went down and enrolled in electrical engineering and one of
the reasons was I had heard about an exciting new technology in the military
called RADAR and somehow there was a training you could go through to learn
about RADAR and didn't particularly have aspirations for any other military
career so I figured I'd get ready for it by taking electrical engineering. I
didn't have any career plans, but that was just coming out of the depression
and my father had been dead since I was nine. So there wasn't much to orient
me about a career, but I was interested in getting an education.
RADAR and the Navy
JE: So you did electrical engineering for a couple years and then went to
the Navy, is that right?
DE: By the end of my sophomore year, if you were in college in engineering
you were getting deferred. But, they dropped all that and so I got drafted
at the end of my sophomore year, and when you get drafted you can opt for
different choices. So, I took a test that the Navy was giving for the RADAR,
trying to screen people to go into this new technology. So, as an enlisted
man I got to get drafted into the navy and go into their year long training
JE: So, your plan sort of worked, you did get yourself ready for RADAR. Now
you were in RADAR for a couple years, or?
DE: Well you trained as an electronic technician, which means that you took
care of Radios, SONAR, teletype transmission, and RADAR. So that, you were
responsible for maintaining their equipment. So it was just one of the
enlisted men's ratings.
JE: So, you probably got hands on that you wouldn't have gotten in
DE: It was just a good training altogether being responsible for, as a
technician for maintaining things. For whatever background I've had it was a
good introduction into a lot of aspects of technology, wave propagation,
antennas, amplifiers all kinds of things. I was sent over to the Philippines
and the interesting thing about that is, we were loaded onto the ship in San
Francisco Harbor and going to be sent out there to help replace, one of the
places in the war that Navy's were taking a lot of casualties was the
kami-kazi's were hitting right under the bridge and that was happening to
communication centers so, if you were one of the technicians working in
there you were wounded. But, anyway's the ship backed out of it's berth and
started around San Francisco and we were all up on deck watching things, it
was a converted freighter. A bunch of whistles started going off and
firecrackers going off and we thought everyone was cheering and we were
thinking "Do they do this for every ship going away". Then the captain say's
"Japan just surrendered."
JE: Perfect timing.
DE: Oh boy. So we all started shouting "Turn around, turn around!"
JE: So, you still had to go to the Philippines anyway?
DE: Yeah, there was still a lot of stuff to take care of things needed to be
demobilized, and y'know.
JE: Interesting. So then you got out of the Navy, and that was around
DE: Yeah, it was the summer of forty-six so I went right back to Coravallis
(sp) to join the thousands of other serviceman, G.I.'s and by forty-eight
JE: So, you went back to Coravallis and finished up your degree in
DE: Spring, of forty-eight and for some reason took a job with the NACA at
Haines Laboratory (sp) Mountain View, California down in the San Francisco
JE: What were they doing?
DE: Well the NACA is the National Aeronautic Commission or something, it was
the forerunner of NASA so that became a NASA laboratory. So it's wind
tunnels and aeronautic research that was going on. So I was hired as an
electrical engineer to work and help make them. So I was working with
motors, twenty-five thousand horsepower motors, and all kinds of things.
New Ideas for Computers
JE: That could be fun. But, at some point you discovered the job over at
Stanford, is that what happened?
DE: Well what happened was I had been there for two-and-a-half years and in
December of fifty I got engaged and that somehow, up till then I was
assuming I would just work there, but that just kind of shook me out of some
kind of orientation, something made me try to look at what my career was and
I realized that I didn't have any more goals and a steady job and getting
married and living happily ever after. So, as I explained on the video I
overacted and worked over the next three, or four months to see what could a
career goal be and by February or March, somewhere in there, I committed to,
by saying "I'm going to commit my career to trying to make it" let's see
"see how I can maximize my careers contribution to improving mankind's
capability for dealing with complexity and urgency." Somehow I said the
world's getting so complex and everything happening was urgent and our
ability to cope with that is not increasing as fast as complexity ad urgency
is and that can only spell a higher and higher probability of global
disaster if we don't do something and then let me see what I can do. Then I
got the image of the way computers could help interactively and the RADAR
technician training let me realize easily that a computer could make
anything happen on a display screen and (???) engineering anything you do...
JE: Had you worked with computers on any of these jobs?
DE: Oh, no. The nearest working computer was probably in Baltimore. I just
read a book, that's how I got this image and I said "Okay, I commit." and
that has been the commitment ever since. So what I did then was look for a
way to get into that field and at Berkeley they had an O and R project to
build a general purpose digital computer and it had been going on for three
years or so. Then I went up and entered graduate school there and started
learning what there was to know about computers. It wasn't until nineteen
fifty-three, I think, when I saw my first working computer.
JE: Was that in the west or did you go east for that?
DE: No, it was at UCLA. The bureau of standards was building computers, so
JE: SWY (?sp?)
DE: Yeah, SWY, Williams two number. Mainframe time to failure, about fifteen
minutes, two hundred and fifty words, or something, memory and everyone was
so excited. So, can you imagine somebody talking about interactive computer
use at that point, y'know, it sounds very unreal.
JE: But, you had a sense of what could happen.
DE: Yeah, I just thought "Well, it could do that" and it was clear by then
the interest in computers both commercially and military was very, very high
so that you knew there would be a lot of development. So, I said "All right.
That looks to me like the best way I could pursue that commitment I made."
But the strange thing, I finally got my Ph.D. and was teaching.
JE: At Berkeley?
DE: Yeah, and people kept saying, "If you keep talking about this kind of
professional (???), no one's doing that, your peers won't except it, there's
no place to publish it. You'll be an acting assistant professor for ever."
So, that's when I decided to go to SRI and in between I tried starting my
own company, for about a year. Some of the patents that came out of my Ph.D
work... a string of maybe fifteen and I thought that I could get into a
business, and if I could make a bunch of money off that then I could do my
augmenting. But, by the end of the year I realized that a: semiconductor
technology was going to bypass what I'd gotten. I was doing plasma, gas
plasma things, so semiconductor plasmas were a lot better. So, I dumped that
and applied to SRI thinking if any place in the world could, y'know, I could
sell any management someplace about trying to explore this augmenting thing.
So, I had to sort of subjugate my interest and go there and start working
for a new board and having those patents was such help for keeping SRI.
Pretty soon I started generating more patents in what they were working on,
magnetic components, and built up sort of enough credibility.
JE: Was this memory, or was this...?
DE: No... a fellow named Hue Krane (sp) conceived of ways to (???) cores
that had multiple apatures instead of just one, that this very interesting
way with a continuing series of driving pulses you could actually store
states in them and propagate it down shift registers. It actually had gain
and energy so that you had stable plus' and minuses and you could store and
move things. I worked in that area for a while then just very (???) about
what I really wanted to do. So, finally got a little bit of part-time
support for starting to think clearly about this augmenting thing.
Augmenting Human Intellect
JE: So during this period you were trying to sell some of the management at,
or whatever level, or your colleagues at Stanford.
DE: SRI could spend some of their internal R and D money they kind of gave
themselves (???) , then I got some money from a small airforce office for
scientific research in Washington, and there was enough there along with
SRI's contribution I could work full time for a couple years and produce
what I called, something entitled Augmenting Human Intelectic Conceptual
Framework. I sent David, did you see that?
JE: Oh yes. I certainly did see that.
DE: Well, the second thing in there was the report I published on that.
JE: We're going to be looking at that for a long time, there is a lot of
stuff in there.
DE: That sixty-two report, I wasn't given enough time to put it together to
see what it was and so I was really pitching to try to get support to do
that and was applying quite a few places and one of the interesting
anecdotes about that is, one of the places I was applying for support, the
National Institutes of Mental Health were trying to support computer usage
for various kinds of support for thinking or working or something. So,
actually sent a sight committee out and they said, "This all very
interesting" but finally when they assessed it all they said "Well very
interesting proposal about what you want to do but, what you want to do
requires quite a bit of sophisticated computer programming and since your
way out there in Palo Alto (sp) where there isn't any, we don't think it's
justified to put our money out there."
JE: Little did they know.
DE: So it wasn't until (???) opened it's information processing techniques
office, JCR and Rip Liner came to do that, and he was talking about manned
computer symbioses and timesharing. He said "Well just out of embarrassment
I have got to give this guy money because he's talking about the same kind
of thing as me." But, I learned from other people some time later that he
also felt that way out there, there wasn't much chance but he sort of was
forced to give it anyway.
JE: So you cobbled together essentially a group, now this isn't ARC yet is
DE: No, see that was just me and there were a few people I was trying to
talk with but mostly working on that report was totally solo solitary work
JE: Did you meet much resistance as far as just working on the report?
DE: SRI didn't want to spend the money, as soon as I started doing that
work, the papers I'd write, the think pieces, people would look at and say
"Gee, we used to think that you were such a clear writer. Look here, you've
got twenty pages trying to describe some thing. I look all through that and
I can hardly figure out what you're trying to talk about. Now look, here's a
one page proposal by Bill over here he describes his problem his approach
and all that in one page." So, I said "Well that's really different. Here
there aren't even the terms to describe." There was enough suspicion in fact
which the first money that we started to get they wouldn't even let me be
the project manager because they thought y'know "Look, it's so vague and
so..." So, it wasn't until the second year, I'm not sure that should ever
JE: Not until the second year could you actually get your hands on your own
DE: Then the sponsor found out about it and it was just real luck to be able
to get support because as it turned out the particular approaches I was
taking and the rational behind it weren't shared by not only by the SRI
people but by the sponsors that, just parts of it that they came to
appreciate or something and some reason or another hung on to give me the
support for the years. As it turned out later that there was a big feeling
in the research community that I was on the wrong track and that "Oh the
mouse is a cute thing" and a few things like that, "Working with displays,
yeah that's good but here we're doing it better, now people are going to
menus instead, and you're too complex". So we had things like client server
architectures built into it with remote procedure call protocols working
and, built into the system and just a lot of architectural things that were,
everyone just pictured them as being way too complex.
JE: These had fallen out naturally from your vision of what a computer could
do for groups of people and they're working to augment their...
DE: That'd be your augmented knowledge workshop and it would be, therefore
groups of people and they're all looking through their windows into a common
workshop and you would have to have the things like servers and such and
such that you could all get access to and electronic mail built into it by
nineteen seventy and as I mentioned in there the system called The Journal
which, y'know a document gets submitted to that and it's like publishing.
Taking that out in the world there are lots of real world applications, it's
just a huge winner kind of capability and it's funny the world just hasn't
heard that yet or something. But, what we found through the years when we
got shut down from the research kind of world in nineteen seventy-six and I
actually got removed from my laboratory directorship and they were just
going to shut it all down, we convinced them that they should auction,
y'know that the system we built was rugged enough to be out in the
commercial world, they had the commercial rights so they should try...
JE: Try actually selling it.
DE: So, after three months of...
JE: This is the augment system.
DE: Yeah, and timeshare happened to be the winning bidder and it was a
steal. They're the ones that we named it augment.
JE: I see. What had you called it?
On to Xerox PARC
JE: Oh yeah, NLS, that's right. Online system.
DE: So, quite a few of our people, a few of them had already gone over to
work at socks parks when it started in seventy-one or something like that
and they sort of made it clear that they were interested in almost any of
our central guys who could come over. So that when this close down started
it was just a real mass exodus over there. But, timeshare when they bought
the system needed some people to operate it and they said "Well, we'll take
any of the crew that wants to come." So, I showed up with it. The perception
that they had picked up from SRI was that I was off the beam, not to be
trusted. So it turned out they wouldn't even let me talk to customers.
Tired Approaches Towards Computers
JE: That's funny because they bid essentially on the system and the group
and so forth, and you had created it. Very strange, people are odd.
DE: Well, we're all wrong like that it's the way our...as I mentioned there
the paradigm people operate on what there assumptions are a lot of them
unexamined assumptions about how things are and where they're going, that
it's a time of change that's faster than paradigms are shifting so, what are
computers for etcetera. Still the biggest impediment for me is that my
perception and vision of what the technology can mean when we learn how to
integrate it into our organizations and life and how much will change in
order to harness it, has just consistently been much different from other
JE: Well that certainly is true, I love the, I think it was in, I read quite
a few articles and one of them either about you or that you wrote quotes a
colleague of yours saying he wouldn't know what to do if the response was
faster than twenty minutes.
DE: Yeah, that was the guy that started computer science at Stanford.
JE: So just a total sort of batch mode mind set.
DE: Yeah that's right and the other was "What, use a computer just for
editing" and I said "No, wait a minute, when your on-line there's a lot more
you can do. While your there why don't you get the computer to help you with
all these other little things." and they'd laugh "You mean automatic
line-wrap" and they would just laugh. "You want to use a whole computer just
to do that?" and I said "No, it's your whole vehicle of working so while
you're there look at all the things it can do for you."
JE: You had thought about interfaces, I take it, very early. In the sense
that it's really through workable interfaces that you get to the machine
that can augment your work, I mean if you had a bad interface how could you
augment, your intelligence and your capacity for work. So, I suppose that's
where your were thinking about things like word-wrap, full screen editing,
all of that.
DE: And more. You know, it's the interface between a human and this whole
augmentation system, which is so much more than just the technology, it's
all of what I call the human system and y'know the clothes we wear, the
facilities we have, the language we employ, the methods, the conventions,
the customs. All of those things are things we've had to learn and interface
with. So, you're interfacing with a lot more than just your pencil or
something. And so, look as all that changes we can consider... Do you know
what matching impedances is?
DE: Right, it's like saying "Hey, look you've got machinery in here, metal
machinery and all kinds of motor sensory machinery that can do terrific
things, "I can ride a bicycle backwards" people skateboarding all of that
stuff, things that y'know we didn't think natively we were evolved to be
able to do, so what makes you think that the conventions for externalizing
our symbols or communicating or manipulating them in any way are an optimum
match to our basic mental motor sensory capabilities. That whole interface
can change the very language and the very structure and the very modes we
portray our symbols and communicate and think. They could totally look for
redesigning to make a better match and we never had the opportunity like
that. So we think that that's the way knowledge, the hard copy is the way
knowledge goes and people still are armed with "Hey, desk-top publishing and
whizzi-wig is the way to go" and I kept saying "That was the way but don't
stay anchored with that look at the options" and so the whole thing about
hypertext and structured and all the optual views we built into the system
and the way in which you also stay oriented about where you are in that
knowledge space and all the optual ways in which you can get to other
places, or reach to other objects on there to manipulate them. People all do
the point and drag stuff as that's the way to do it, well that's a new way
to do it but if that's the only way you're missing a tremendous amount.
JE: I noticed that your involved with or had designed or at least worked
with a number of input devices besides the mouse. There were several
keyboards that worked on the principle of combinations of...
JE: Yeah, chords and that kind of thing.
DE: Yeah that was distinctly, I had to force that in to that. That was part
of it and the two together, we demonstrated that in sixty-eight but people
just out of hand rejected that keyset thing
(Break in tape)
New Ideas/Old Traditions
JE: Yeah, for the tape I was just saying that your, the interfaces that you
created for that nineteen sixty-eight demonstration, IEEE was it?
DE: No, it was the fall Joint Computer Conference. They had two a year and
that was the two computer conferences.
JE: Right. And that interface still looked good when I first saw it in the
nineteen eighties so it must have been a real revelation in nineteen
sixty-eight if not a total shock but you were saying the reaction was kind
of mixed or?
DE: Well it really seemed to build a lot of excitement or something like
that but the strangest part about that was we thought that during the next
year we would see a lot of interest in pursuing that it was almost as though
it didn't relate to the real world there would be people who'd come by and
see demonstrations and say "Wow". But I began to realize over the following
years that somehow it didn't connect with their perception of their own
future. Y'know it's as if you'd gone to some laboratory and seen some people
strap things on their backs that let them levitate and move around and "Oh
that's all very interesting but that has nothing to do with my own future".
JE: Gosh, that is surprising, I must say. It's very hard for people to see,
DE: Well this is one of the biggest single problems. I keep saying that the
perception people have of the future, of what it's potential is, of what
there is to do about it etcetera, is the biggest single problem in mankind's
ability in the future to harness technology and really take advantage of
(End side 1)
JE: ...implicit assumption that's not examined.
DE: That the large parts of our world that are being taken for granted and
they're not being examined ever or being considered as candidates for
change, for explicit planned change. And yet the rapidity with which really
dramatic scale changes are occurring in what the capabilities of technology
are, are such that by the time that really gets integrated into the whole,
our whole social human system there's a lot of adaptation to be made. That's
why we were talking about this, how you match impedances really with
JE: Yes, and the impedance of computers personal computers actually if you
think about it is still rather high, I mean computers are still really too
hard to use.
DE: But when I talk about matching impedances it's sort of...
JE: To get resonance.
DE: To get the maximum transfer of power is what impedance matching is all
about so the maximum transfer of knowledge and directed capability and as a
matter of fact that hard to use thing is just, that's another image which
you'd say "Alright, okay Jon you have to reexamine your own paradigm there".
JE: And adjust it to the computer.
DE: No, adjust it to what it is that will let you best harness the computer.
I make analogies like in automobile world or something like that if you'd
ask people in nineteen ten when you could still buy different kinds of cars
from people what their perception would be of how it was all going to get
integrated into our world and they'd never have conceived of how much
complexity there is in all you have to know in order to ...
JE: That's right in one of the articles here. It's a good analogy of all the
skills you would need to keep the thing going down the road
DE: And another thing I point out is if you get these self propelled wheeled
vehicles that make an interesting way to get around if that easy to use kind
of picture was there everybody would still be riding tricycles cause a
bicycle is just something that's totally more difficult. There's no natural
way to think about riding a bicycle in fact most people don't even know what
it is their body is automatically doing in order to ride a bicycle.
JE: Now what is the acronym that you developed ETLANTU or something. Easy To
DE: Natural To Use.
JE: Natural To Use, right, yes.
DE: So anyway that's, I finally made a paradigm map. Twelve or thirteen
boxes around a sort of a loop. If you start out thinking a serious objective
make organizations much more capable of coping now I call it boosting their
collective IQ's. The different stages in the way I thought about it and
developed the approach in which there are really different ways of thinking
that sort of have to be admitted to the dialog in order for me to say
"There's the picture".
JE: Y'know one thing did bother me a little bit when you were talking about,
or one of the articles was talking about this and that is many of your
concepts have made the computer easier to use. The famous ones are the
interface devices or conceptual devices. So you see this as sort of a two
way two agent street that is that people should work to develop the skills
that allow them the best impedance matching and the computer also we have to
do things with the computers to try to aid that matching is that sort of the
DE: Right, I can outline processor y'know it's really sort of a way in that
which people can do well at trying to get things organized in the hierarchy
and the outline processor really helps as you learn how to use it. But it's
a, y'know that's an unnatural, we've never had that sort of thing before but
why avoid it because it's different. Cause I remember one of the best
software guys that came and worked for me just like this he says "I don't
think that way and your not gonna make me start." and I said "Okay". But,
you work there a while and you very quietly start realizing how easy it is
to tuck these things down and rearrange it and then when he started doing
his programming that way he just became a convert.
JE: I don't know if I understand the outline processor concept as well as
I'd like to. I use the outliner in Microsoft Word a lot, I mean I do a lot
of outlining before I write is that the sort of thing that your thinking
about. So the say Microsoft Word outline features is sort of an outline
DE: Yeah it's sort of like saying why wasn't that introduced at the outset
in word processors. See we were trying to, that was part of the sixty-eight
thing and part of our system from the beginning. Y'know you specifically
establish that in your document. Another paradigm issue is what's a document
and as long as the orientation is that a document is this printed thing then
what you have in the computer is just getting ready for it and is
whizzi-wig. So if you start using an outline processor and start folding
things etcetera and different views then your sort of shifting away from the
normal.Well way back there we said externilizing your concepts and your
symbols outside has been one way that technology's from ppapyrus on up, we
get use to that there's a lot of conventions for doing that. Well if we
externalize them into this other medium of which were going to work then
there are just a lot more options for the way in which that can make a
better map of what's in your head. That's what led me directly, thinking
like that it was just like "Oh, jesus". The computer can show all sorts of
relationships that you can't show on paper and so why not, and the computer
help you get that there and get that structure relationships and he;lp you
view it and help you move around, so why not.
Management Organization and Transformation
JE: The sixty-eight presentation is that, do you see that as one of the high
points or the high point of the work you were doing at SRI, or was that just
another station along the way?
DE: What we had to show by then was just along the way and y'know every year
after that more and more was added and then the experience of working with
organizations out there and getting more and more clear about how much shift
there would be and actually more respect for the complexity of changing
organizations and learning pragmatically about all of the very natural
impediments to bring it in. But,nobody that's serious about working on his
job was ever sort of indoctrinated into his career role or something with
the orientation of how much change that'd be coming about, so to introduce
that and to have people suddenly think that "God, I've worked this long to
become a manager of this etcetera like that and suddenly your expecting me
to move into a different working mode etcetera in which, hell, in the first
place I'll look stupid and I don't have as much time as the younger guys do
to change and what happens to me?" so he says "Oh, you gotta start, you have
to provide for a lot of the very natural things."
JE: It's fascinating you've been saying this really since the sixties and
yet it's been very hard for large organizations to really incorporate that
into their actions because the greatest, over the years through the late
seventies and eighties the greatest complaint on heard was that
organizations were not spending enough time really thinking about the
effects of this change that your talking about here so it must have been
just as hard for the top management to get thinking about this as it is for
the kinds of people your describing to actually make the shift.
DE: The job and working environment for the top management is going to
change a great deal too.
JE: I imagine that they are going to resist that.
DE: Who that they feel understands their world is going to them a different
world. Y'know the consultants that are out there that talk about high level
strategies and management in organizations they're not oriented yet for the
change that's coming. Indeed who's responsible for mapping that future,
that's the kind of thing we got into in the video and the change in the
organizations is something that has just always happened really slowly and
organically and the opportunity now for terrific change to gain terrific
advantages is there but there is no precedent for making that conversion
rapidly there aren't the processes, there aren't the improvement processes
there, there aren't the ways,... I've got, some of my slides, if I talk
about what I call the tool system is all the technologies that we apply,
hardware and software and the human system is all the conventions and
methods and all of that and I sort of laid it out in a two-dimensional plane
and I say we're down here near the origin of that two-dimensional thing now
that there all these technologies we can anticipate tremendous sort of
things. Huge band with wireless things always with us connected to any kind
of databases anyplace in the world high speed networks. And the other
dimension is all of the changes that are possible in your organizational and
human system so someway your not just going to go puttering along that
x-axis because you can't really take advantage of that without the other.
So, what is your path going to be out into that two-dimensional space and
where are you going to end up settling best in five years and twenty years
etcetera, nobody's explored that space to be able to tell you. So, who can
tell you if your the guy to decide for some big organization, where your
going to be and how to get there most effectively. There's no exploration in
that space, you can't do it in a university you've got to do it with real
JE: Now is that the main focus of the boot-strap work?
DE: Yeah, the main focus of bootstrap is to say "given that, what's the best
strategy for getting organizations out there and what's a really pragmatic
evolutionary approach, and that's the bootstrapping thing so that it ends up
saying there's a particular kind of consortion that you can make with
organizations that can be the same kind but it's almost better if they're a
different kind. At the outset you'd be expecting them not to make great big
investments so half a million a year for the first couple years among six to
ten of them would get a great start and in the process there as you start
reclarifying what we call the improvement infrastructure and that this
consortion becomes an integral part of that improvement infrastructure and
that it's relationship with the other organizations gets really dynamic and
working and bonding it's not like a consortion where you send your money to
some central place your people are in and out and in the consortion your
making that the first level most advanced outpost you can and it's got a
very explicit purposeful set of capabilities it's going to enhance and in a
way in a networked way they can start really using that network
collaboration to facilitate the improvement process of every organization
JE: Now as I understand it you've tried to do this in some private programs
in your own organization, is that right? Or, have you been able to get pilot
programs started in other organizations?
DE: Well, over the years up until eighty-eight or so, the Tymshare activity
and the later the McDonnell Douglas (???) and in some of the customer (???)
they have quite a few pilot operations there that taught us a lot but they
were never structured in this same boot-strapping way but they teach you a
great deal anyway. We're trying now to, y'know we've been trying to get this
consortion started and it looks like it's beginning to make headway but it's
the kind of the thing where it's very clear if you watch the inside of any
busy barge or organization you realize that there isn't a decision point in
there where the person who has to make some of these decisions about that
has a chance to get the experience and the assurance that they can stick
money in the, that's farther out.
JE: You'd have to make it kind of cold, right?
DE: What we're trying to do is sort of boot-strap that. It's sort of like
keep it at a relatively modest, y'know half-a-million a year is not a very
big deal once they sort of feel like getting ready. It's gotten to be a big
deal in the last couple of years when everybody is downsizing and cutting
JE: Oh, right, yeah.
DE: and it's gotten to a really dangerous extent.
JE: Well it acquires a momentum all it's own and people begin downsizing and
the word has been applied dumbsizing, y'know just for the sake of doing it.
DE: Well down in costcutting and that everything is too, unfortunately we've
got to watch this next quarter so that we don't have any long term (???).
So, part of our strategy is just saying look whatever you do have y'know
there's going to be a lot of change and some are going to survive and others
aren't, who's going to come out on top? and he say's "Whatever you do have
to invest in this improving and changing you better have the best strategy
you can for that investment" and that's what we're offering.
JE: In your timeshare period and then McDonnell Douglas buy's out timeshare
right and was there a large change between timeshare and McDonnell Douglas
or, I mean were you able to flow your work from timeshare to the McDonnell
Douglas work fairly easily?
DE: In the first place I have to describe that the operation of the business
of selling augment services etcetera through Tymnet and Opernet (sp) was
something that I wasn't in, that they kept me off to the side. So, I
couldn't influence it very much. But, the business side of it wouldn't let
me talk to the customers. It became quite clear that it was an explicit
shielding. For one because they said they knew the timesharing business and
"if you start involving customers the main thing they'll do is start wanting
the system changed and you'll have to spend more and more on system changes"
and we said "Yeah but if there's this much transition going to come about
then they need to be involved." "I don't know, we know better than you, you
guys come from this ivory tower stuff". But when McDonnell Douglas took over
there wasn't a direct link between aerospace side of it, but I could go
commute to St. Louis and start talking to aerospace people and there with
groups that were involved in thinking about the corporate architectures for
the information systems and trying to improve capabilities etcetera
JE: And you had access to it?
DE: Right, but to get that I had to actually shift my organizational to whom
I was attached to some person who ran a small office in the regular
aerospace in St. Louis, who I actually never met who said "Alright, we can
put you here as long as the funding comes" so another group say's "We'll
give him the funding" and this guy says "I don't even have the time to give
you reviews" "Well, okay, this will only be a year or so"
JE: That might be alright.
DE: No, I meant that you didn't get any salary increases.
DE: So, I had to go through that for about four years or so.
JE: I thought you were talking about program reviews, sometimes if they
don't do anything they sort of keep hands off you, which has some
DE: Well that part was all just trying to build it up so we, anyway it was
just very instructive being inside a big organization like that, of trying,
trying to see how some of the successful executives were extremely risk
aversion y'know where they're not really going to stick there necks out at
all because if you do anything that people can chip away at you about you
Exodus to Xerox PARC (Revisited)
JE: Yes, that may have been one of the factors involved in the problems that
Xerox had in not being able to get (?Alto?) out the door. You mentioned that
a number of your SRI people went to Xerox PARC, sort of when it started,
around seventy-one you think.
DE: Well a few of them went over early and the real move came around
seventy-six when they started saying,... it was obvious that our program was
feeling we weren't going the right direction and was starting to pull it's
support and SRI actually put someone else in charge of my lab who had very
different perception, very, very different about it. So, just within weeks
people started trotting down the street to park. So, they ended up with like
fourteen of them.
JE: There was no formal connection between your lab at SRI and Xerox Park,
there was a real sort of people connection I take it.
DE: The majority of the people brought into park were people hired from the
university (Standford - ed.) and Bob Taylor who was hired early had been a
director at ARPA of the information processing office so he knew all the
people etcetera and pulled them together. So, a large part all knew at least
knew the names. And then when park first started up they didn't have any
computers so some of those people would come over to our lab and hang out
and use NLS and we actually started a joint developmental language.
NLS and the Alto
JE: A number of the features of the Alto certainly reflect your idea's and
in fact that's a remarkable machine, when I take people through our exhibit
I will ask them to guess how old this machine is, we have the Alto and I
show them the mouse and we have a simulated screen and so forth, and nobody
guess' seventy-three. So, I presume that Sort of happened because of the
people who went over there.
DE: I don't really know. Y'know I didn't get invited to come be a part of
that and the people that went over would tell me that the people were taking
the mouse and some of the things like that but for some reason there's an
antipathy, an explicit antipathy about NLS that basically people aren't
accepting it as a place to go from.
JE: It's clear that you were way ahead in thinking about the possibilities
for groupware and that kind of thing, which looked to me essentially as
though it were built in NLS very early on. It looks as though they took sort
of specific pieces of, specific concepts and so forth but, not the sort of
larger data concepts and networking concepts and that kind of thing although
I guess that, if I recall, that the Alto was on some sort of a network...
DE: But it wasn't shared stuff.
JE: Yeah, it wasn't really shared.
DE: When they were building the, there was the next big system...
DE: Star, yeah. So, that was definitely a networked thing and there were
four of the (???) activities, the applications, the network system, the
hardware, and operating system, I don't know but four of the guys from my
lab headed each of those parts of that thing so there were more in the
pursuit of the remote procedure called protocol, they published an early
one, the guy who wrote that had been in our lab too and I called him up
later and said "Gee, how big a subset of our remote procedure called
protocol that we actually built into our system, how large a part of yours
did we actually have?". He said "Actually it's the other way around, we
published you as only a subset of what we built". There was very little
communication that I just somehow didn't feel welcome and whether it's my
own problem or what. I went over there a couple of times to visit but people
were always showing me what they were doing and it was in a sense almost
like "See this is the real way to go" and I remember I went over and they
showed me the electronic mail they were getting, as though it was a brand
new deal and it didn't have the functionality that we had had since seventy.
So, it just made me, I don't know, I was having a hard time.
JE: Well there was, I tell ya that time when there were conditions at SRI
that were problematic for you, you said that was part of the reason your
people went over there, over to park.
DE: In seventy-six, in the fall sort of a terrific jolt by telling me "Well,
we want to get your lab going in the right direction and such so we're
replacing you as director" y'know that was a horrible jolt. That came about
a month and a half after my house had burned down. Boy, pretty bad year.
JE: Yes, I would think so, especially the frustration, as you say in one of
your articles of knowing that because of the delay, the house really got
going, the fire really got going and if you had been three minutes instead
of six minutes, y'know, it could have made a huge difference.
DE: I didn't know that ever got into print.
JE: Well it's in there, I think it's in one of your, if not it's in one of
the interviews, but it was very interesting.
DE: So, anyway it's sort of like the house ran into so many problems,
financial ones, cause y'know it's been a rough financial thing through all
these years too and so it wasn't until late last summer we finally got the
final inspection finally to get our house back together, just what it does
to your social life, and family. Then career wise it's like I've been in
Siberia since then trying from the outside, I'm not part of the world
anymore I don't belong to any organization, I'm not in any funded channel
for research, it's an outsider.
JE: And yet it is curious but it seems true that since eighty-seven even
though you were famous in the business, I mean I first read about back in
either the late seventies or early eighties there was an article on the
mouse but there was more on you than just the mouse. We knew about you when
we started the show and we're determined to get something about, so and yet
the sort of honors are starting to really come in post eighty-seven, it's
very curious you must have been the most famous person in the business that
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