Computer pioneer dies at 88 | July 10, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 10, 2013

Computer pioneer dies at 88

by Dave Boyce

The fellowship of high-technology pioneers lost another giant with the death of Atherton resident Douglas C. Engelbart.

Credited with inventing the computer mouse and for coming up with concepts such as point-and-click and hypertext links, Mr. Engelbart interceded on behalf of ordinary people to extend the power of computing far and wide.

Mr. Engelbart died July 2 at his Atherton home at the age of 88, according to a statement from his former employer, SRI International in Menlo Park.

"Doug was a giant who made the world a much better place and who deeply touched those of us who knew him," said Curtis Carlson, SRI's president and CEO. "SRI was very privileged and honored to have him as one of our 'family.' He brought tremendous value to society. We will miss his genius, warmth and charm. Doug's legacy is immense — anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him."

In the 1950s and 1960s, when SRI was known as the Stanford Research Institute, Mr. Engelbart led a team of "computer pioneers" in the Augmentation Research Center. This team developed tools to "enable people and organizations to harness the growing power of computers to meet the exploding challenges of the coming times," Almanac staff writer Marion Softky wrote in a February 2001 cover story.

Compared to the desktop and hand-held computing powerhouses of today, using a computer in the 1960s was something like driving a car from the back seat. To develop a computer program, for example, you typed code at a card-punch terminal to yield a stack of cards with holes in them, the holes representing computer instructions. You handed your cards to an operator who ran them through a card-reader to check for errors. With no errors, you could use the cards to run the program and come back later for results, usually in the form of a print out.

Improving or correcting your program required new punch cards. And depending on the demand for the computer, you may have had to stand in line and listen to and/or watch the card reader monotonously checking the cards of the people ahead of you.

Enough of all that, said Mr. Englebart and his team. Along with the mouse and hypertext, the group developed real-time text editing, integration of text and graphics in the same document, online journals, teleconferencing with a split screen, and technology that allowed people to collaborate on problems from different remote locations.

In the field of programming, the group developed online processing, linking and in-file object addressing, use of multiple windows, hypermedia, and context-sensitive help, according to an SRI statement.

A major turning point in the collective vision of what computers might become came on Dec. 9, 1968, when Mr. Engelbart sat on stage during a computer conference at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, a keyboard and mouse in front of him and a big-screen projection behind him. For 90 minutes he manipulated text and pictures. Using a grocery list as a prop, he created headings and reorganized the items under them in ways that are common practice today. He also engaged in live video-enabled exchanges with co-workers at SRI in Menlo Park, including revising a document in tandem.

"Two thousand people gave him a standing ovation," Marion Softky wrote in 2001. "And all at once people began to realize what computers could do."

Go to for a video of this demonstration.

"It was stunning. It really (woke) a lot of people up to a whole new way of thinking about computers — not just as number crunchers," Bob Taylor of Woodside said for the Almanac story. Mr. Taylor won the Medal of Technology award the year before Mr. Engelbart and was recently named a fellow at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, a recognition that he shares with Mr. Engelbart.

The demo did not awaken the industry as a whole. It was not until the 1980s that the first commercially available mouse appeared, by which time Mr. Engelbart's patent had expired, according to a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek cited in an obituary of Mr. Engelbart from Bloomberg News.

A soft-spoken man

Karen O'Leary Engelbart, who married Mr. Engelbart in 1999, said she met her future husband while on assignment to write a story about him for Gentry Magazine. She tape-recorded her interview but when she got around to writing the story, she discovered she needed to follow up. "He was so soft-spoken ... I could hardly discern what he said," she recalled.

The follow-up interview took place in his house during a birthday celebration, where she also bought some Girl Scout cookies. He called to let her know her cookies had arrived, she picked them up and "that was the beginning of our life together," she said.

"I think his vision of collective IQ and collectively getting together to solve the problems of humankind ... was part of his soul, part of who he was," she said. "I think that simplicity, openness and optimism about humankind is who he was. ... He loved people and he loved humanity, which made him a wonderful human being and a wonderful husband."

Mr. Englebart's first wife, the former Ballard Fish, died in 1997. Along with his wife, Mr. Engelbart is survived by his son Norman of Woodside and daughters Gerda of Healdsburg, Christina of Sebastopol, and Diana Mangan of Pleasant Hill, Oregon. If there is a public memorial service, it will likely be in September, Ms. O'Leary Engelbart said.