Douglas Engelbart, Computer Mouse Creator, Visionary, Dies at 88

July 3, 2013

Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse



Douglas C. Engelbart with an early computer mouse in 1968, the year it was unveiled

Douglas C. Engelbart was 25, just engaged to be married and thinking about his future when he had an epiphany in 1950 that would change the world.

He had a good job working at a government aerospace laboratory in California, but he wanted to do something more with his life, something of value that might last, even outlive him. Then it came to him. In a single stroke he had what might be safely called a complete vision of the information age.

The epiphany spoke to him of technology’s potential to expand human intelligence, and from it he spun out a career that indeed had lasting impact. It led to a host of inventions that became the basis for the Internet and the modern personal computer.In later years, one of those inventions was given a warmhearted name, evoking a small, furry creature given to scurrying across flat surfaces: the computer mouse.

Dr. Engelbart died on Tuesday at 88 at his home in Atherton, Calif. His wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart, said the cause was kidney failure.

Computing was in its infancy when Dr. Engelbart entered the field. Computers were ungainly room-size calculating machines that could be used by only one person at a time. Someone would feed them information in stacks of punched cards and then wait hours for a printout of answers. Interactive computing was a thing of the future, or in science fiction. But it was germinating in Dr. Engelbart’s restless mind.

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.

It was his great insight that progress in science and engineering could be greatly accelerated if researchers, working in small groups, shared computing power. He called the approach “bootstrapping” and believed it would raise what he called their “collective I.Q.”

A decade later, during the Vietnam War, 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. Even so, in the main, computing industry professionals regarded Dr. Engelbart as a quixotic outsider.

In December 1968, however, 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.

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.

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 25, 1925, to Carl and Gladys Engelbart. He spent his formative years on a farm in suburban Portland, graduated from high school in 1942 and attended Oregon State College. Toward the end of World War II, he was drafted. He spent two years in the Navy, one of them in the Philippines, as a radar technician.

One day he was in a reading library on a small island when an article titled “As We May Think” caught his eye. The article, by Vannevar Bush, a physicist and inventor who oversaw the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, described a universal information retrieval system called Memex. The idea stuck with Dr. Engelbart, and he made it his life’s work.

After returning to Oregon State and graduating, he was hired to work at Ames Research Center, a government aerospace laboratory in California run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, NASA’s forerunner. While there, working as an electronics technician, he saw how aerospace engineers started with small models of their designs and then scaled them up to full-size airplanes.

The idea of scaling remained with him. After getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and starting work at SRI, he wrote a seminal paper on the importance of scaling in microelectronics. He presented it in 1960, a year after the invention of the planar transistor, which had improved the electrical output of transistors and made them cheaper to manufacture and available to a mass market.

Dr. Engelbart grew convinced that computers would quickly become more powerful and that there would be enough processing power to design the Memex-like Augment system that he envisioned. He was proved right.

The idea for the mouse — a pointing device that would roll on a desk — occurred to Dr. Engelbart in 1964 while he was attending a computer graphics conference. He was musing about how to move a cursor on a computer display.

When he returned to work, he gave a copy of a sketch to William English, a collaborator and mechanical engineer at SRI, who, with the aid of a draftsman, fashioned a pine case to hold the mechanical contents.

Early versions of the mouse had three buttons, because that was all the case could accommodate, even though Dr. Engelbart felt that as many as 10 buttons would be more useful. Two decades later, when Steve Jobs added the mouse to his Macintosh computer, he decided that a single button was appropriate. The Macintosh designers believed in radical simplicity, and Mr. Jobs argued that with a single button it was impossible to push the wrong one.

(When and under what circumstances the term “the mouse” arose is hard to pin down, but one hardware designer, Roger Bates, has contended that it happened under Mr. English’s watch. Mr. Bates was a college sophomore and Mr. English was his mentor at the time. Mr. Bates said the name was a logical extension of the term then used for the cursor on a screen: CAT. Mr. Bates did not remember what CAT stood for, but it seemed to all that the cursor was chasing their tailed desktop device.)

The importance of Dr. Engelbart’s networking ideas was underscored in 1969, when his Augment NLS system became the application for which the forerunner of today’s Internet was created. The system was called the ARPAnet computer network, and SRI became the home of its operation center and one of its first two nodes, or connection points. (The other node was at the University of California, Los Angeles. Two others followed, at the University of Utah and the University of California, Santa Barbara.).

Dr. Engelbart saw his ARC group grow rapidly after 1969. At the height of the Vietnam War, it swelled to more than 50 researchers — a significant number of them young men who had taken to computing in part to avoid the military draft.

The group disbanded in the 1970s, and SRI sold the NLS system in 1977 to a company called Tymshare. Dr. Engelbart worked there in relative obscurity for more than a decade until his contributions became more widely recognized by the computer industry. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-M.I.T. Prize and the Turing Award.

His first wife, the former Ballard Fish, died in 1997. Besides his wife, his survivors include his daughters, Gerda and Christina Engelbart and Diana Mangan; a son, Norman; and nine grandchildren.

Dr. Engelbart was one of the first to realize the accelerating power of computers and the impact they would have on society. In a presentation at a conference in Philadelphia in February 1960, he described the industrial process of continually shrinking the size of computer circuits that would later be referred to as “Moore’s Law,” after the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

Speaking of the future, he said, “Boy, are there going to be some surprises over there.”

Douglas Engelbart, Computer Mouse Creator, Visionary, Dies at 88

Douglas Engelbart, the visionary electrical engineer who invented the computer mouse decades before the influx of personal computers into homes and workplaces, has died. He was 88.

He died on July 2 at his home in Atherton, California, according to SRI International, the research institute founded by Stanford University. The cause was kidney failure, the New York Times reported, citing his wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart.

Engelbart’s work at SRI, then called the Stanford Research Institute, resulted in 21 patents. The last one, No. 3,541,541, filed in 1967 and granted in 1970, was for the computer mouse.

“Doug’s legacy is immense,” Curtis R. Carlson, president of SRI, said yesterday in a statement. “Anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him.”

In the patent application, the device was described in technical terms: “An X-Y position indicator control for movement by the hand over any surface to move a cursor over the display on a cathode ray tube, the indicator control generating signals indicating its position to cause a cursor to be displayed on the tube at the corresponding position.”

He had devised the palm-sized, wheel-based instrument in 1963 as a way to move a computer-screen cursor by means other than arrows on a keyboard. Other alternatives being weighed at the time were a light-pen pointed at the screen, a tracking ball and a joystick.

Tinkering, Testing

“I remember how my head went back to a device called a planimeter,” another wheel-based device used by engineers to measure irregular geometric areas, he recalled in a 1987 oral-history interview with Stanford University Libraries.

His colleague William English, SRI’s chief engineer, led the tinkering and testing of the cursor controller, which was carved from wood and used two perpendicular wheels rather than the roller ball included in subsequent incarnations. English built the first prototype in 1964.

On Dec. 9, 1968, at a computer conference in San Francisco, Engelbart unveiled his team’s work in a presentation that became known in tech circles as “the mother of all demos.” During the 90-minute session, linked to his lab by a homemade modem, Engelbart showed off then-novel feats including interactive computing, video conferencing, windows display and hypertext — plus the rectangular, three-button controller he used to control the cursor on the screen.

Rodent’s Tail

“I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” he told his audience that day. “Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.”

The rationale for the name, he said in other interviews, was quite simple: the device resembled the rodent, with its cord as a tail. He said nobody on his team could remember who used the term first.

The computer mouse burst into public consciousness in the 1980s after being refined at Xerox Corp. (XRX)’s Palo Alto Research Center, debuting with little commercial success as part of the Xerox Star computer in 1981, then finally becoming an integral part of computers sold by Apple Inc. (AAPL) and International Business Machines Corp.

Over the next three decades the mouse was offered in a rainbow of colors and in different styles: cordless, optical rather than mechanical, designed for left-handed use, ergonomically correct. Logitech International SA (LOGN), the world’s biggest computer mouse maker, introduced its first mouse for retail in 1985 and shipped its 500 millionth in 2003 and its billionth in 2008.

No Royalties

“Isn’t that unbelievable?” Engelbart said in a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek, describing his invention’s lasting ubiquity. “My first thought was that you’d think someone would have come up with a more appropriately dignified name for it by now.”

Engelbart earned no royalties from his invention. He did win, in 1997, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, and in 2000, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bill Clinton.

“More than any other person,” said the award citation, “he created the personal computing component of the computer revolution.”

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on Jan. 30, 1925, near Portland, Oregon, the middle child of three of Carl Engelbart, a radio salesman and repairman, and the former Gladys Munson.

After two years of college, he was drafted and spent two years in the U.S. Navy, from 1944 to 1946.

Chance Encounter

During a layover on the South Pacific island of Leyte, on the way to his posting in the Philippines as an electronic radar technician, Engelbart found a Red Cross library — “a genuine native hut, up on stilts, with a thatched roof,” he recalled. “You came up a little ladder or stairs, and inside it was very clean and neat. It had bamboo poles and was just really nice looking. There were lots of books, and nobody else there.”

It was in that unusual academic venue, he recalled, that he encountered “As We May Think,” an essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, head of U.S. wartime scientific research and development.

In it, Bush predicted technological advancements that would lead to breakthroughs in human knowledge, including “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library,” on which a person “stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”

Engelbart recalled, “I remember being thrilled. Just the whole concept of helping people work and think that way just excited me.”

Earliest Computers

After the war, he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1948. He spent three years at the federal Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, then four years at the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in engineering and contributed to building one of the earliest digital computers.

According to a biography written by his daughter, Christina Engelbart, by then he was envisioning “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped. Then they would communicate and collectively organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”

Engelbart joined SRI in 1957 and began accumulating patents, some tracing to his graduate work. He became director of the institute’s laboratory, which he named the Augmentation Research Center.

Arpanet Beginnings

In 1962 he produced his own influential paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” for the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, building off Bush’s work of two decades earlier. The paper earned him a share of research funds distributed through the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, first known as ARPA, then DARPA.

The Engelbart-led lab at SRI contributed to creation of the Arpanet computer network, a predecessor of the Internet.

In 1988, Engelbart left his research job at McDonnell Douglas Corp. and, with daughter Christina, set up a nonprofit foundation to advocate his ideas for improving collective knowledge. The foundation started as the Bootstrap Institute and in 2008 became the Doug Engelbart Institute.

Engelbart had four children — daughters Gerda, Diana and Christina, and son Norman — with his first wife, the former Ballard Fish, who died in 1997. He married the former Karen O’Leary in 2008.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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