Note: This sketch by Christina Engelbart is a 1994 version of a document that is currently maintained by the Doug Engelbart Institute here. The outdated version below will remain a part of the Stanford MouseSite in the interest of the original site's integrity. Beware that citations of Engelbart's papers in this text may be numbered differently in his current bibliography.
Douglas Carl Engelbart has a thirty-year track record in predicting, designing, and implementing the future of organizational computing.
The grandson of early pioneers of the West, he grew up during the Great Depression on a small farmstead near Portland, Oregon. After graduating from high school in 1942, he went on to study Electrical Engineering at Oregon State University. Setting his studies aside, he joined the Navy during World War II, serving for two years as an electronic/radar technician in the Phillipines.
After completing his Bachelors Degree in E.E. in 1948, he settled contentedly on the San Francisco peninsula as an electrical engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory (forerunner of NASA).
However, within three years he grew restless, feeling there was something more important he should be working on, dedicating his career to. He thought about the world's problems, and what he as an engineer might possibly be able to do about them. He had read about the development of the computer, and seriously considered how it might be used to support mankind's efforts to solve these problems. As a radar technician he had seen how information could be displayed on a screen. He began to envision people sitting in front of displays, "flying around" in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility. So he applied to the graduate program in Electrical Engineering at U.C. Berkeley to launch his new crusade (at that time there was no computer science department, and the closest working computer was in Maryland).
He earned his Ph.D. in 1955, along with a half dozen patents in "bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices", and then stayed on as Acting Assistant Professor. However, within a year he was tipped off by a colleague that if he kept talking about his "wild ideas" he'd be an Acting Assistant Professor forever. So he ventured back down the Peninsula in search of a more suitable outpost.
He settled on a research position at SRI (then Stanford Research Institute), where he earned another dozen patents in two years working on magnetic computer components, fundamental digital-device phenomena, and miniaturization scaling potential.
By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval to pursue his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a theoretical framework for a new discipline, which became the guiding force for his seminal work (see Paper #3).
This framework is based on the assumptions that complexity and urgency are increasing exponentially, and that the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps. Therefore, in addition to aspiring to be increasingly faster and smarter at their core missions (whether creating better widgets, or solving societal problems), organizations will have to get increasingly faster and smarter at how they keep improving. Engelbart saw both organizational missions as relying on the same core capabilities, which he encapsulated in the term human intellect (later switching to Drucker's knowledge work).
This thinking prompted an analysis of what capabilities humans draw from, aside from what they are born with, to boost their intellect. A myriad of technical and non-technical elements emerged, such as tools, media, language, customs, knowledge, skills, procedures, and so on. He recognized that these elements had co-evolved slowly over centuries, but with the advent of digital technology, the technical elements would shoot way ahead of the non-technical, and tend to automate rather than augment human intellect. What would be needed would be to engineer all the elements in an accelerating co-evolutionary process, setting up advanced pilot "outposts" in which to experiment and explore future work modes. He further surmised that an early target for application should be to support improvement activities, especially the designers, implementers, and deployers of these tools and practices (the essence of bootstrapping).
Then in 1963 he finally got the funds to start his own research lab, which he later dubbed the Augmentation Research Center. He began by developing the kind of technology he believed would be required to augment our human intellect, and also to support the bootstrapping/augmentation process. Throughout the '60s and '70s his lab pioneered an elaborate hypermedia-groupware system called NLS (for oNLine System), most of whose now-common features were conceived of, fully integrated, and in everyday operational use, by the early 1970s (see Pioneering Firsts below).
In the spring of 1967, it was announced that all the ARPA-sponsored computer research labs, including Engelbart's, would be networked to promote resource sharing. Engelbart was thrilled. He saw the ARPANET as an excellent vehicle for extending NLS provisions for wide-area distributed collaboration. He also saw NLS as a natural to support an online directory of resources, so he proposed a Network Information Center (NIC), which he built up and directed until around 1977, when it spun off as an independent operation. Because of this early active role in the formation of the ARPANET community, his site was the second host on the network.
NLS was first demonstrated in public at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in a remarkable 90-minute multimedia presentation, in which Engelbart used NLS to outline and illustrate his points, while others of his staff linked in from his lab at SRI to demonstrate key features of the system. This was the world debut of the mouse, hypermedia, and on-screen video teleconferencing (see Paper #6 and companion video; selected footage is also on display at the Smithsonian Museum Exhibit on The Information Age).
In keeping with his Augmentation framework, Engelbart incorporated psychology and organizational development into his research. He also believed very strongly that the human-tool co-evolution should be based on rigorous exploratory use in a wide variety of real-world applications (see Paper #26). So in the mid-'70s he began building a community of users via the ARPANET and sponsored user group meetings of "Knowledge Work Architects" to collaborate on pilot trials and future requirements.
In keeping with his Bootstrapping strategy, he employed NLS from the beginning for distributed collaborative software engineering, technology transfer, and community support (see Papers #9, #8, and #18). For example, his Knowledge Work Architects Community was supported by NLS, as was his entire R&D operation-NLS was developed and maintained using NLS in structured hypertext files, with links between the source code, design documents, specifications, bug reports, change requests, thinkpieces, commentary, rationale, customer records, etc.
At its peak his SRI lab had grown to 47 people, inluding the NIC. (For a more detailed autobiographical rendition of his "odyssey" since 1951, see Paper #24 and companion video).
In 1977 Tymshare bought the commercial rights to NLS, renamed it AUGMENT, and set it up as a principal line of business in a newly formed Office Automation Division. There the focus switched from R&D to commercialization, and in spite of Engelbart's efforts, the human/organizational work was cut off, including his carefully cultivated user group. In 1984 Tymshare was acquired by McDonnell Douglas Corporation, where Engelbart began working closely with the aerospace components on issues of integrated information system architectures and associated evolutionary strategies (a welcome extension of his work at SRI).
In the last decade, thousands of knowledge workers in industry and government have benefited from the unique team support capabilities of NLS and its evolutionary successor AUGMENT. In recent years there has been a surge of interest and exploration in the new interrelated topics of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, groupware, and hypermedia. It is now recognized that Engelbart's emphasis at SRI on supporting collaborative work, and the breadth of associated system development, not only clearly anticipated this major trend, but produced in NLS/AUGMENT what is still the most comprehensive system for supporting wide-area collaboration (see Papers #25, #22, and #23.)
Engelbart's work has never been easy. Through the years he has been misunderstood, told he was "dead wrong", ridiculed, or simply ignored, which many say is to be expected when one is "20 years ahead of his time". As each new wave of the computer revolution unfolds (e.g. office automation, personal computing, groupware, hypertext), and people's experience become more aligned with Engelbart's vision, they typically say "OK, now I see what he was trying to do". However, they are still looking at bits of his past, while he continues to point into the future ...
In recent years, Engelbart has been heartened by the movements in total quality, business process reengineering, reinventing organizations, concurrent engineering, groupware, hypermedia, the World Wide Web, and all the impressive networks of improvement activities sprouting up all over the world. He is hopeful that enough synergy can be generated among these activities to ignite a serious, thriving bootstrapping activity-a collaborative improvement community aimed at spawning those quantum leap improvements in our organizations, boosting our "collective IQ" to unforeseen heights.
This bootstrapping community would jointly pioneer future work modes, enabled by advanced, rapidly evolving prototypes, and pioneer better and better strategies for designing, implementing, and transferring those work modes into common practice. The community would act as a rigorous beta site of its R&D results, a staging area for implementing and evaluating pilot trials, and an industry focus for anticipating requirements and the much needed industry standards in this arena (see Papers #28 and #29).
In 1989 Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute, feeling the time was ripe to pursue in earnest his comprehensive strategy for bootstrapping organizations into the 21st century. His focus continues to be in creating high-performance organizations by fostering bootstrapping communities, researching and developing the enabling technologies, best practices, and special strategies for developing and deploying these capabilities on a continuous improvement basis, with pro-active participation from stakeholders in government, industry, and society (see Papers #27 and #29). Engelbart divides his time between R&D, consulting, publications, speaking engagements, and leading seminars, workshops, and participatory "expeditions".
Doug Engelbart has authored over 25 publications, and generated 20 patents, including the patent for the mouse. He has also received numerous honors, including:
Doug Engelbart lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife of over 40 years and two cats, and in close proximity to all 4 children and 8 grandchildren. He has enjoyed exercising, hiking, camping, sailing, reading, folk dancing, bike riding (although he has appeased his wife by giving up trick riding), raising ducks, earthworms, and bees, making up science fiction fantasy stories for children, science lectures for his wife when she has trouble sleeping, and any excuse for a family gathering.
Copyright © 1995-1996, Christina Engelbart. All rights reserved. Send suggestions, fixes, additions to the Doug Engelbart Institute.
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