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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Douglas Engelbart, inventor of mouse ..... is no more

This man is no more ~ he passed away on 2nd July 2013 his home in Atherton, California – he was 88…… not many of us know of him nor of the way, he changed our daily lives…. Today in a Tamil newspaper read of a news article wherein a TN Minister has urged the students to write with 10 fingers and not with 2 [meaning using the key- board rather than write with a pen].  This visionary electrical engineer  has changed the way we live with one of his inventions ~  he worked at SRI, then called the Stanford Research Institute, registering 21 patents. The last one, No. 3,541,541, filed in 1967 and granted in 1970,  is perhaps exceptional for all of us.  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.” 
Guessed it aright ??

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925 – 2013) was an American inventor, and an early computer and Internet pioneer. He is best known for his work on the challenges of human/computer interaction.  

Engelbart was a committed, vocal proponent of the development and use of computers and computer networks to help cope with the world’s increasingly urgent and complex problems.  Interestingly it is stated that his career was inspired in 1951 when he was engaged to be married and realized he had no career goals beyond getting a good education and a decent job.  

He reasoned that he would focus  his career on making the world a better place.  That was a time when computers were more of number crunching tools and data entry was cumbersome.

Engelbart then formed a startup company, Digital Techniques, to commercialize some of his doctorate research on storage devices, but after a year decided instead to pursue the research he had been dreaming of since 1951. Engelbart slipped into relative obscurity after 1976. Several of his researchers became alienated from him and left his organization for Xerox PARC, in part due to frustration, and in part due to differing views of the future of computing.  He did undergo lot of stress and frustration with non-acceptance of some of his findings, house burning, family problems and …

Years later he teamed up with  his daughter, Christina Engelbart and founded the Bootstrap Institute to coalesce his ideas into a series of three-day and half-day management seminars offered at Stanford University.  Since the late 1980s, prominent individuals and organizations have recognized the seminal importance of Engelbart's contributions. In December 1995, at the Fourth WWW Conference in Boston, he was the first recipient of what would later become the Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award. In 1997 he was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000, the world's largest single prize for invention and innovation; more awards and recognitions followed.  In December 2000, United States President Bill Clinton awarded Engelbart the National Medal of Technology, the United States' highest technology award. In 2005, he was made a Fellow of the Computer History Museum "for advancing the study of human-computer interaction.  On December 9, 2008, Engelbart was honored at the 40th Anniversary celebration of the 1968 "Mother of All Demos”.

If you are wondering what that ‘demo was all about’ !  - it was the Computer Mouse – with which we transact most of our jobs today. The basic idea for the mouse first came to him in 1961 while sitting in a conference session on computer graphics, his mind mulling over the challenge of making interactive computing more efficient. It occurred to him that, using a pair of small wheels traversing a tabletop, one wheel turning horizontally, one turning vertically, the computer could track their combined rotations and move the cursor on the display accordingly. The wheels could function something like the wheels on a planimeter – a tool used by engineers and geographers to measure areas on a map, blueprint, drawing, etc. – but in this case, rolling the wheels around on the tabletop would plot the x,y coordinates for a cursor on a computer screen. He recorded the idea in his notebook for future reference.

A little over a year later, Engelbart received a long-awaited grant at SRI to launch his dream research initiative titled "Augmenting Human Intellect," for which he envisioned intellectual workers sitting at high-performance interactive display workstations, accessing a vast online information space in which to collaborate on important problems. He hired a small research team, and set up a basic lab with computer and teletypes, and finally, a display terminal. It was his patented idea of moving a cursor and selecting something on a display screen that eased the lives of millions of computer users.  

The first mouse obviously looked far different than what we use daily now.  In his own words, “The mouse we built for the [1968] show was an early prototype that had three buttons. We turned it around so the tail came out the top. We started with it going the other direction, but the cord got tangled when you moved your arm.”
the description of the patent [above] and the patented device [below]

Thus it was in December 1968; a relatively obscure scientist from Stanford Research Institute stood before a hushed San Francisco crowd and blew every mind in the room. His 90-minute demo rolled out virtually all that would come to define modern computing: videoconferencing, hyperlinks, networked collaboration, digital text editing, and something called a "mouse."  It won on every category, it was faster and enabled that people worked with lesser mistakes.

A great mind which eased the work of others unfortunately is no more.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
4th July 2013

Photos and news courtesy :

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