Douglas Engelbart, a technologist who conceived of the computer mouse and laid out a vision of an Internet decades before others brought those ideas to the mass market, died on Tuesday night. He was 88. His eldest daughter, Gerda, said by telephone that her father died of kidney failure.
Engelbart arrived at his crowning moment relatively early in his career, on a winter afternoon in 1968, when he delivered an hour-long presentation containing so many far-reaching ideas that it would be referred to decades later as the “mother of all demos.”
Speaking before an audience of 1,000 leading technologists in San Francisco, Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), showed off a cubic device with two rolling discs called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” It was the mouse’s public debut.
Engelbart then summoned, in real-time, the image and voice of a colleague 30 miles (48 km) away. That was the first videoconference. And he explained a theory of how pages of information could be tied together using text-based links, an idea that would later form the bedrock of the Web’s architecture.
At a time when computing was largely pursued by government researchers or hobbyists with a countercultural bent, Engelbart never sought or enjoyed the explosive wealth that would later become synonymous with Silicon Valley success. For instance, he never received any royalties for the mouse, which SRI patented and later licensed to Apple.
He was intensely driven instead by a belief that computers could be used to augment human intellect. In talks and papers, he described with zeal and bravado a vision of a society in which groups of highly productive workers would spend many hours a day collectively manipulating information on shared computers.
“The possibilities we are pursuing involve an integrated man-machine working relationship, where close, continuous interaction with a computer avails the human of radically changed information-handling and -portrayal skills,” he wrote in a 1961 research proposal at SRI.
His work, he argued with typical conviction, “competes in social significance with research toward harnessing thermonuclear power, exploring outer space, or conquering cancer.”
A proud visionary, Engelbart found himself intellectually isolated at various points in his life. But over time he was proved correct more often than not.
“To see the Internet and the World Wide Web become the dominant paradigms in computing is an enormous vindication of his vision,” Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s almost like Leonardo da Vinci envisioning the helicopter hundreds of years before they could actually be built.”
By 2000, Engelbart had won prestigious accolades including the National Medal of Technology and the Turing Award. He lived in comfort in Atherton, a leafy suburb near Stanford University. But he wrestled with his fade into obscurity even as entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became celebrity billionaires by realizing some of his early ideas.
In 2005, he told Tom Foremski, a technology journalist, that he felt the last two decades of his life had been a “failure” because he could not receive funding for his research or “engage anybody in a dialogue.”
Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on Jan. 30, 1925 in Portland to a radio repairman father who was often absent and a homemaker mother. He enrolled at Oregon State University, but was drafted into the U.S. Navy and shipped to the Pacific before he could graduate.
He resolved to change the world as a computer scientist after coming across a 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research, while scouring a Red Cross library in a native hut in the Philippines, he told an interviewer years later. After returning to the United States to complete his degree, Engelbart took a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, after Stanford declined to hire him because his research seemed too removed from practical applications. It would not be the first time his ideas were rejected.
Engelbart also worked at the Ames Laboratory, and the precursor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He obtained a doctorate in electrical engineering from Berkeley in 1955.
He took a job at SRI in 1957, and by the early-1960s Engelbart led a team that began to seriously investigate tools for interactive computing.
After coming back from a computer graphics conference in 1961, Engelbart sketched a design of what would become the mouse and tasked Bill English, an engineering colleague, to carve a prototype out of wood. Engelbart’s team considered other designs, including a device that would be affixed to the underside of a table and controlled by the knee, but the desktop mouse won out.
SRI would later license the technology for $40,000 to Apple, which released its first commercial mouse with the Lisa computer in 1983. By the late 1970s, Engelbart’s research group was acquired by a company called Tymshare. In the final decades of his career, Engelbart struggled to secure funding for his work, much less return to the same heights of influence.
“I don’t think he was at peace with himself, partly because many, many things that he forecast all came to pass, but many of the things that he saw in his vision still hadn’t,” said Kapor, who helped fund Engelbart’s work in the 1990s. “He was frustrated by his inability to move the field forward.”
In 1986, Engelbart told interviewers from Stanford that his mind had always roamed in a way that set him apart or even alienated him. “Growing up without a father, through the teenage years and such, I was always sort of different,” Engelbart said. “Other people knew what they were doing, and had good guidance, and had enough money to do it. I was getting by, and trying. I never expected, ever, to be the same as anyone else.”
He is survived by Karen O’Leary Engelbart, his second wife, and four children: Gerda, Diana, Christina and Norman. His first wife, Ballard, died in 1997.