In a single epiphany in 1950, he envisioned the way computing should be done. At this time, huge computers were fed punch-cards by a single person trying to solve one problem at a time. According to this recent NY Times obituary, this is what Dr. Engelbart envisioned back then:
In his epiphany, he saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols — an image most likely derived from his work on radar consoles while in the Navy after World War II. The screen, he thought, would serve as a display for a workstation that would organize all the information and communications for a given project.
Looks similar to what we do now doesn't it? (Al Gore was 2 years old at the time) But Dr. Engelbart didn't just leave it there. He went ahead and created the elements of this vision.
A decade later he established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI and then SRI International). The unit, the Augmentation Research Center, known as ARC, had the financial backing of the Air Force, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Defense Department.
The SRI is widely acknowledged as the founder of the Internet.
In December 1968, he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, one of a series of national conferences in the computer field that had been held since the early 1950s. Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.
For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.
|A prototype of the first computer mouse, which was invented in 1964 by Dr. Engelbart and constructed by two of his associates.|
In contrast to the mainframes then in use, a computerized system Dr. Engelbart created, called the oNLine System, or NLS, allowed researchers to share information seamlessly and to create and retrieve documents in the form of a structured electronic library.
The conference attendees were awe-struck. In one presentation, Dr. Engelbart demonstrated the power and the potential of the computer in the information age. The technology would eventually be refined at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Apple and Microsoft would transform it for commercial use in the 1980s and change the course of modern life.
Years later, people in Silicon Valley still referred to the presentation as “the mother of all demos.” It took until the late 1980s for the mouse to become the standard way to control a desktop computer.
Check out the presentation here. It's quite eye-opening to see history in the making.