Douglas Engelbart: Inventor Of The Mouse

Early Life

Douglas Engelbart was born to Carl Louis Engelbart and Gladys Charlotte Engelbart on January 30, 1925 in Portland, Oregon.( The middle of three children, Engelbart moved to the countryside around age nine or ten, after the death of his father. He otherwise lived a fairly unremarkable childhood, graduating from Franklin High School in 1942(Wikipedia). He moved on to study electrical engineering at Oregon State University.


Vannevar Bush: A visionary, much like Engelbart would become.Vannevar Bush: A visionary, much like Engelbart would become.Engelbart's studies would be interrupted as he set aside his textbooks for military gear, joining the United States Army as a radio technician. (Internet Pioneers) It's here that things get a little muddy- some sources claim that he joined willingly, others insist that he was drafted. I suppose it's less important how he joined the army and more important that he did; for it was here that he would ultimately find the inspiration that would lead him to become an inventor, and create one of the most important computer peripherals ever made- the mouse.

The story goes that, while in a small hut on the island he was serving on in the Philippines, Engelbart read a piece called "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush.(Wikipedia).In the piece, first published in July 1945, Bush expresses disdain at the direction of scientific efforts. That they are turning towards destruction rather than understanding is a tragedy- Bush makes it clear that he desires a machine of some sort which would make knowledge more accessible. This, he believed, would serve to correct the path of science.(Wikipedia) Engelbart didn't realize it then, but Bush would be one of his chief inspirations in the years to come.

As an aside, that machine Bush dreams about.....sounds suspiciously like a modern PC, doesn't it? I wouldn't be surprised if Engelbart wasn't the only one who received some degree of inspiration from Bush's ideas. Anyway, Engebart read the article, and the gears started turning in his head. He had an idea, and he would not be dissuaded from it, even if he seemingly put it to the back of his mind for a few years.

An Inventor Is Born

After the war's end, Engelbart went back to school, acquiring his degree in 1948. Credentials in hand, he settled into a job at NACA Ames Laboratory(an organization which would later pave the way for NASA). However, Engelbart wasn't content with this. After only two years of working for NACA, he started to become restless, realizing that his ultimate goal- a steady job, marriage, a happy life- would contribute nothing to mankind in the long run.(Internet Pioneers)

Wherever his future lay, he felt it wasn't here. He wanted to make a difference- he wanted to do something beyond simply living. Engelbart "began to envision 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."(Douglas Engelbart Institute)

Whoa, wait, wait, wait. Hold on a second. This guy right here...basically envisioned the internet over fifty years before its inception. In hindsight, though...that's not really a huge surprise. If you look back, a lot of the greatest and most brilliant inventors were far, far ahead of their time.

The First Mouse

With his new idea burning in his mind, Engelbart enrolled at U C Berkeley and earned a PHD in Engineering in 1955. It was during his service at Berkeley as a professor that Engelbart realized his dream-using machines to augment the intellect of man- wasn't exactly attainable: technology hadn't advanced far enough. Eventually, he left Berkeley and acquired a research position at the Stanford Research Institute. (Douglas Engelbart Institute)

It was here that he would finally come into his own, acquiring some dozen patents to his name- including Graphical User Interfaces, hypertext, and networked computers(biographybase). He also saw the advent of networked computers, and was one of the founding members of the prototype for the internet. In other words, Engelbart isn't just important because he designed the first computer mouse. It's more than that- he can easily be considered to be one of the forefathers of modern computing; right up there with Jack S. Kilby.

Anyway, in 1968, Engelbart demoed the very first computer mouse, along with NLS(oNLine System- essentially a prototype internet), hypermedia and on-screen video teleconferencing. All of these would eventually evolve to form a large part of the modern computing industry's framework.. All of these would one day become commonplace. But at that time, at that moment...they were revolutionary. (Douglas Engelbart Institute.

Final Thoughts

And now, I'm afraid we've run out of time. Though Engelbart's story certainly doesn't end here, this profile of him does. That said, I'll leave you with one final thought:

Douglas Engelbart is one name that will forever be ingrained in the computer industry. Look at your computer mouse. Look at your screen. Look at what you're using to read this article. Engelbart's had a hand in all of it. I wonder what he thinks, seeing what he dreamed of over half a century ago finally come to fruition?