A decade ago, Steve Jobs changed how we think about cell phones and mobile computing when he debuted the first iPhone. It was a landmark occasion, and it's a presentation that has rightly been hailed as one of the greatest moments in tech history. But it's small potatoes compared to a live demo given in 1968, which changed how we think about computing forever.
The presentation was given by Douglas Engelbart of Stanford's Research Institute International at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. During the tech demo, Engelbart showed off his team's oN-Line System (also known as the NLS) and its many capabilities, such as:
- A multi-window interface
- Underlined hypertext links
- A graphic interface
- Video conferencing
- Real-time, collaborative editing online
- The computer mouse
- Revision control / editing
- Dynamic file linking
Of course, every computer today features all of these innovations in software like Explorer, Word, Google Docs, your web browser, and Skype. Most of these features simply didn't exist in 1968, and here was a guy showing them all off in a single, working system.
This wasn't merely a matter of Engelbart's team being first past the post with a host of features that everyone was pursuing, either. This is like someone in the 1980s showing off a smartphone that ran apps, took selfies, and caught Pokémon.
It came out of nowhere. In a world where most computers were still being programmed with punch cards, this was the lunatic fringe crashing the party about three decades early.
Watching the demo today, it honestly might bore you to tears. It's delivered with the slow, deliberate drawl that most academic technical demos are delivered in. Engelbart's enthusiasm is palpable, and the room gave him a standing ovation when all was said and done, but if you stumbled into the room in 1968 without knowing what was going on, you probably would've stumbled right back out again.
Perhaps most impressive, is that none of these features were canned or faked. This was an actual live demonstration of a groundbreaking, highly technical system. Imagine how stressed you get hoping your 10-slide PowerPoint presentation is going to work, and then multiply that by a billion.
To be fair, more than a few people walked out of the demo not quite understanding what they had seen. Even the leading experts in the field at the time mostly viewed computers as a tool for completing complex calculations. Engelbart saw computers much like we see them today: as tools for information retrieval, collaboration, and multi-tasking, augmenting our own intelligence.
Despite his work, Engelbart's vision of the future wasn't as well-respected as you might think. According to one of SRI's other researchers, Bill Paxton, most of Engelbart's colleagues thought he was a "crackpot" at the time.
Other than being credited with inventing the computer mouse in the early 1960s, Engelbart mostly slid into the background. But as personal computing took off in the decades to come, the work (and many of his colleagues) did not. Many moved onto help form the legendary Xerox PARC team, and most of the innovations from this demo are still the cornerstones of both Mac and Windows systems today.
Engelbart passed away in 2013, but thanks to the magic of YouTube (and in no small part to his own team's work) we can enjoy the presentation to this day.
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