The origins of interface

[This post is courtesy guest blogger Ken Gagne.]

Today’s home computers seem to evolve more incrementally than computers of a few decades ago. When the Apple II was new, innovations abounded as technology was applied and created in ways never before imagined. There were more “firsts” back then, such as the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, which cemented the computer’s place in businesses nationwide.

The genius of those early pioneers is evident, but what is sometimes overlooked are the giants upon whose shoulders they stood. The Apple II adapted and borrowed from what had come before, and one of its most significant pieces of hardware was the mouse. This input device was popularized by the Macintosh in 1984 and introduced for the Apple II a year later, but it was not an invention of Apple Computer Inc. The mouse was designed decades earlier by Doug Engelbart, with assistance by Bill English, both of the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park.

It was in 1968 that Engelbart made his first public demonstration of the mouse. It was one part of a much longer presentation that included several other hardware and software innovations.

On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The public presentation was a session in the of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.

That occasion was preserved in audio and video and is available as this series of nine YouTube videos.

Computers developed very quickly from that point, with many of the word processing, spreadsheet, database, and connectivity concepts Engelbart demonstrated soon becoming available and accessible to the average consumer. That revolution hasn’t stopped, with the expansion of the Internet becoming a truly global phenomenon. What would Engelbart, from his humble yet insightful beginnings, think if he could see today’s computers?

Fortunately, Engelbart is still alive and well, and writer and teacher Howard Rheingold recently hosted Engelbart and Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext”, for dinner. Here is some of their discussion:

Just as using perspective in painting seems self-evident to us today but was groundbreaking upon its first application, our every-day input devices are often taken for granted. But we have a growing number of ways to interact with electronic devices, be QWERTY or DVORAK keyboards, mice, graphics tablets, inbuilt microphones, Web cameras. or touch screens. The Apple II familiarized many of us with these foreign concepts, but people like Doug Engelbart made it possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Nadeau)

[ Ken is the editor and publisher of Juiced.GS, the longest-running Apple II publication in print, as well as the marketing director for the annual Apple II convention known as KansasFest.  He is the senior associate online editor at Computerworld.com and regularly blogs about retrocomputing at Apple II Bits. ]

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