Hit & Run

The Other Revolution of 1968

Friday A/V Club: The "mother of all demos" turns 50.

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"I'm going to do something called 'jump on a link,'" the man tells the audience. "And the link is something that'll go between files."

It's hard to remember that there was a time when someone would have to explain what clicking on a link entails. But 50 years ago this week, a Stanford engineer named Doug Engelbart made history doing exactly that. For roughly 100 minutes, at a presentation that the tech journalist Steven Levy later dubbed "the mother of all demos," Engelbart demonstrated the tools that he and his colleagues had been developing, including such then-alien concepts as hypertext, videoconferencing, file sharing, and the computer mouse. ("I don't know why we call it a mouse," he comments. "Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.") The digital era was in utero, and Engelbart's audience was peering at the sonogram.

Most of the demo was captured on video. (The videographer was Stewart Brand, who had just founded the Whole Earth Catalog.) You can watch the recording below; if you want to search for particular moments, a transcript with timestamps is here.

Even then, the audience knew it was watching more than just a new set of technologies. "For the first time," the Stanford historian Fred Turner writes in his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, "they could see a highly individualized, highly interactive computing system built not around the crunching of numbers but around the circulation of information and the building of a workplace community." That in turn reflected Engelbart's social ideals. Influenced by the cybernetic visions of Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush, Engelbart was aiming, in Turner's words, toward a system where "each individual's comprehension would be increased by the participation of others through a process of collective feedback facilitated by the computer." Such bottom-up feedback systems, he felt, could "facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings."

At the risk of proving him wrong, I invite you to discuss the demo in the comments.

(For some excerpts from an opera about Engelbart's demo, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another edition with a Stewart Brand connection, go here.)