The Mouse that Clicked:

The Story of Computer Pioneer Douglas Engelbart's use of

Power and Influence to Boost Humanity's Collective IQ

By Bernt Wahl

Published 1998    



Visionary and Architect

If the computer is the machine that changed the world, then Douglas C. Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) in Palo Alto, California transformed it into something the world could use. Using a combination of charisma, vision, organizational skills and shear determination, at a time when punch cards, vacuum tubes and teletype machines were synonymous with computing, he led his research group to pioneer computing devices that would help people collaborate. These mechanisms of computing would later be known as the mouse, multiple windows, email, hypertext and teleconferencing. Today it is hard to imagine the digital world without his creative influence, but when he first proposed them he was dissuaded from pursuing this research, both in his Ph.D. theses and later academic work. It was felt by colleagues in the 1950's and 1960's that these 'wild ideas' were unlikely to produce worthwhile applications, especially ones worthy of tenure at a major university like U.C. Berkeley where he was teaching.


Douglas C. Engelbart's vision can be seen in his seminal work a 29-page paper published in 1962, titled "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect." In it he lays out the plan of how people will be able to perform information processing in remote groups by sharing documents over a network, "When I first heard about computers, I understood from radar experience during the war that if these machines can show you information on printouts, they could show that information on a screen. When I saw the connection between a television-like screen, an information processor, and a medium for representing symbols to a person, it all tumbled together in about half an hour. I went home and sketched a system in which computers would draw symbols on the screen, and I could steer through different information spaces with knobs and levers and look at words and data and graphics in different ways. I imagined ways you could expand it to a theater-like environment where you could sit with colleagues and exchange information on many levels simultaneously … Think of how that would let you cut loose in solving problems!"


From the beginning Douglas C. Engelbart understood how information and communication could be used effectively to influence changes in society. He incorporated these changes into his own work environment too. The group communications systems he developed are Augment and NLS (On-line System). Below is how he developed the teams that would carry out his vision.



Inspiring Others to Share the Vision


If Doug was going to see the "augmenting of the human intellect" he would need to design the framework, find the people who could build its tools - most notably the networked personal computer - and train the knowledge worker who would to use it. Where some visionaries might come up with novel concepts revolutionizing how mankind would eventually change and leave it to future generations to develop the technology, Doug Engelbart would form groups that would actually build solutions. He knew that having a working model added immensely to one's credibility in projecting the future.


Doug Engelbart's brilliance inspired people to want to do great things. Like a computer architect that builds circuit boards from component parts, Doug Engelbart is able to organize engineers, scientist, educators, and others to structure projects that can be carried out. He constantly enables personnel by empathizing with them and expressing confidence in their abilities. His mottoes still are: involve people to solve problems, create the future by sharing goals, get the right people, take risks with big rewards. Doug Engelbart knows that when you share an illustrious vision, it entices others to join in.


Douglas Engelbart constantly challenges people too, he knows that creative people love to be tested. This process creates excitement and motivates people to come up with inventive solutions. People are drawn to the projects that fulfill their need to be part of something awesome; in his case it is constructing shared computing. For people like Charles Irby, that day came at an annual ACM meeting, when he saw the inspiring work of Douglas Engelbart's group, from then on he knew he would have to become apart of the exciting work that was changing computing. After cornering Bill English - one of the SRI researchers working on the exciting projects - about the work, he got an invitation to visit. Once there the SRI receptionist informed Charles Irby that there were no openings, he refused to leave until Bill English came to talk to him. His persistence paid off for he was hired, that started his seven-year journey at SRI in creating the future.



Charismatic Leader.


Organization strength may be power, but to Douglas Engelbart it is the way to get things done. Douglas Engelbart genuinely likes people. To him society is just a group of friends. Over the years he has been able to maintain the duel role of friend and leader to the people in his organization as well as with those outside it. He has done this by taking a personal interest in the individual while drawing upon those interests to further the collective effort.


Some people use fear and intimidation to motivate, while others use promises of great wealth, Douglas Engelbart just offers people a chance to transform the world. Through scientific collaboration, he has furthered a vision where people can come together to solve the world’s problems more effectively. Doug Engelbart has been able to weave personal integrity with team devotion and foresight to produce revolutionary technological innovation. Something that American's greatest computer industrialist might well be envious of. While Steve Jobs might be able to seize on a great idea, champion it and bring it to the world’s attention and Bill Gates might follow market trends to know when to bring a product to market, it takes someone like Douglas Engelbart to produce the innovation. There must be great satisfaction in knowing that you and your team came up with something first. This puts him in a much respected position in the eyes of the world, admiration that some of the richest industrialists probably wish they could buy.


Douglas Engelbart has used organizational structure throughout his career to build specialized units that could provide elements to his vision.  These structures often can be scaled within the "process hierarchies" to provide the appropriate amount of detailed needed to solve the task at hand. In the Augment Knowledge System, we can see how tasks can be broken into smaller parts: artifacts (physical objects and symbols that are manipulated in the organizational process), language (the manner in which the mind creates a classification structure in which the organizational process is formed), methodology (the procedures used to aid an individual to solve problems), and training (the conditioning need to effectively integrate the proceeding elements). Used collectively they provide a more effective means to processing problems.


Douglas Engelbart is always innovating by provoking organizations processes that can be improved. For example when he was working with computer operators he brought in psychologists and social scientists to look at how interface problems could be overcome, problems that previously had only been looked at by engineers. In one social experiment he split teams up into small units called "PODS" to see how they would form under flexible conditions. These "PODS" were also used for teleconferencing. They consisted of workstations on rolling tables that could be quickly configured into L-shape, U-shape units by pulling together whichever tables were available. The "PODS" mobility allowed the knowledge worker the ability to design his/her own conference setting that gave them a sense of control over their environment.


Doug Engelbart built a cultural setting in which engineers felt free to experiment with new ideas. Within the organization policies were set up that would build on prior work, this was accomplished by incorporating past project developments into current ones. Doug Engelbart felt that by showing earlier work in action it would add to the sense of importance to the utility of the presently work. For example human-tool interfaces would be written in the language that the software team was developing. In procedural operations computers were to work the way humans think, their tasks would be broken up into smaller units. This resulted in computers operations that were easier to use and more productive.


When appropriate Douglas Engelbart would use his position as a central figure to instigate change. When the Journal Project started, people were reluctant to use it because submissions could not be retracted. To combat its lack of use Dr. Engelbart forced adaptation to the new method by shutting off regular email, this required all messages to be sent via the Journal. Pretty soon people were comfortable with it and it became "routine to bundle up your notes from a meeting or project, whip off a thinkpiece, and plunk them into the Journal for the record." As time went on the lab started implementing many of the group’s developments into daily operations, people started thinking of computers in terms of digital slates, and organizations as large social families rather than the traditional calculator and titled structure.


Doug Engelbart encourages people to envision the future. He is constantly improving the process by encouraging people to experiment with ideas to see which ones can be adapted in useful applications. He does not let people to give up on good ideas either, for he knows that sometimes it takes a long time for the world to value an augmenting innovation. He himself had invented the mouse in 1963, 20 years before the world finally embrace it. Today over 150 million mouses have been produced but back then it too was only a farfetched idea. By helping others get involved, he has been able to get many to contribute to the grand scheme of global digital collaboration. This participation among other visionaries has fostered an immense loyalty to Doug Engelbart's organizations and causes.


Today at 72, a point where most would reflect on a job well done, Dr. Engelbart still presses on, calling up his troops one last time to extend the digital frontier. This time it is through his Bootstrap Institute where he has been able to gather a mixture of SRI colleagues, people from industry, education and government to carry on the mission of raising the world's collective IQ.





I think that Doug Engelbart's real secret to being able to carry out his mission has been his love of people. He is a successful leader because he makes you feel like an important member of the team, Doug Engelbarts's work gives you purpose.


In essence Douglas C. Engelbart is successful in building organizational teams because he is able to: set high expectations, build cultures, create excitement, show personal confidence by empathizing and expressing confidence in others abilities, organize and facilitate, while maintaining his vision, integrity and a genuine caring of humanity.


Today the Unfinished Revolution goes on…




Even though Douglas Engelbart is a soft-spoken man he can be a showman when it is need. In 1968, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a defining moment in computer science history, when in front of 1000 distinguished members of the Association of Computing Machinery - the first national computer organization - he showed his system working projected on a 40-foot screen. The use of projection technology to show off his collaborative technology demonstrated how he could effectively use self-dramatization. That day Doug Engelbart showed the world usage of the mouse, button navigation, hypertext and a networked collaboration system that connected the convention center at Brooks Hall in San Francisco with his offices in Palo Alto. These innovations stand out as some of the greatest events in computing history; even so it would take fifteen years before many of these concepts would become commercial available in such computers as the Apple Lisa and Apple Macintosh.



Status is power and Doug Engelbart has used his reputation to effectively further his cause. In his early years at SRI, where performance was based on tangible measurements, he used the fact that he was able to earn a dozen patents in two years to get approval to pursue his own research. In the proceeding two years he laid the foundation of what would be the heart of his seminal work in collaboration. At the core were issues such as how humans interact with each other, how to best attack social problems and how can to boost the world's collective IQ. Finally in 1963 after generating a great deal of internal interest at SRI he was able to secure the funds to start his own research lab and with it draw in the people that would help to produce this grand vision. They worked feverishly to bring this new technology to frustration, by 1967 the collaborative computing system was working and GroupWare was born. People could now share information networked over long distances and stored human knowledge could easily be retrieved and processed. As Doug said it was " ... the thinking and the visualization of complexity."


As Doug Engelbart's work progresses so do people’s interests and awards. Recently he won the $500,000 Lemelson -MIT prize. Today Doug Engelbart is able to use his status as one of the world's premiere visionaries to persuade companies like Sun Microsystems and Netscape, along with an alliance of businesses, governments and educational institutions to help with building the collective knowledge base. Now he is able to inspire organizations as well as individuals to help him in creating a world of collaboration. What kind of future developments will he inspire next?


Publications (only principal items cited below)


    1."Boosting Our Collective IQ," a selection of Engelbart articles commemorating the SoftQuad Web Award at the WWW  Conference, Dec 1995.


2."Dreaming of the Future," in BYTE Magazine, Sep 1995 (special "20 Years" Issue).


3."Toward Augmenting the Human Intellect and Boosting our Collective IQ," in Communications of the ACM, August 1995.


4."Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware," in Proceedings of the GroupWare'92

Conference, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1992.


5."Bootstrap Seminar Binder," the proceedings from Engelbart's 3-day Management Seminar "A Comprehensive Strategy for Bootstrapping Organizations into the 21st Century", Stanford, CA, Mar. 1992.


6."Working Together," with Lehtman, BYTE Magazine, Dec. 1988.


7."NLS Teleconferencing Features: The Journal, and Shared-Screen Telephoning," in CompCon75 Digest, 1975.


8."Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," in Summary Report, SRI, on Contract AF 49(638)-1024, Oct. 1962, 134 pages. Republished in (a) Vistas in Information Handling, Howerton & Weeks [Ed.], Spartan Books, 1963; (b)