User interface pioneer Douglas Engelbart dies at 88

By Graeme Burton
04 Jul 2013 View Comments

Douglas Engelbart, the man credited with developing the modern computer interface in the 1960s, has passed away at the age of 88. Engelbart is especially well known for inventing both the computer icon and the mouse - two key elements of computer interface design since the mid-1980s.

Engelbart conducted his research into computer interface design at Stanford Research Institute (which later became SRI International) in 1957. He filed more than a dozen patents and published a hugely report entitled "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Concept Framework".

Further reading

At Stanford, he established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) and worked on such ideas as bitmapped screens, collaborative tools, and the precursor of graphical user interfaces. ARC also became involved with ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet, as well as such ideas as hypertext, object address, dynamic file linking and shared-screen collaboration.

The computer mouse and other elements of Engelbart's inventions were publicly demonstrated for the first time in December 1968 in a recorded demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, California, a conference that had been running since the 1950s.

In a demonstration of around 60 minutes, shown on a large-screen projector above the stage, he demonstrated not just the computer mouse, but how people could interact with a networked computer that enabled information to be shared quickly among its users.

He showed how the mouse could be used to interact with a computer, as well as demonstrating text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and the windows concept.

The ideas were revolutionary for their time. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs stumbled upon Engelbart's work following a tour of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which was working on the computer mouse concept in the 1970s.

Stanford, which later became SRI International, subsequently licensed Engelbart's invention to Apple for around $40,000.

According to the New York Times, Engelbart's interest in creating new ways of interacting with computers was piqued after he read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" while serving as a radar technician in the Pacific during the Second World War.

In December 2000, President Bill Clinton award Engelbart the National Medal of Technology in recognition of his influential work. 

SRI International, which is still in operation today, has also published an orbituary of Engelbart.  

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