What device did Douglas Engelbart invent?

PC Polymath
Alternate view of Engelbart and English's computer mouse prototype. Check out those wheels.
Alternate view of Engelbart and English's computer mouse prototype. Check out those wheels.
Tom Munnecke/Getty Images

Although he was best known for the mouse, Engelbart pioneered a slew of personal computing and Internet technologies. More than that, he articulated a vision of an information society that we are only beginning to realize today [source: Markoff].

While the politicians of his childhood might have touted a chicken in every pot, Engelbart envisioned a computer terminal in every office, connected to a central computer through which workers could share data, files and ideas. This augury of the office network came to him in 1950, in an era of room-sized computers, vacuum tubes and punched-tape programming [sources: DEI; Markoff; MIT].

His stint as a radar technician in World War II had convinced him of the potential uses of screen displays, but how to get from massive corporate mainframes to a network of desktop terminals remained unclear -- until the integrated circuit debuted in 1959 [sources: CHM; Markoff; MIT].

Engelbart saw great potential in integrated circuits. He believed that the same principles of scaling that he had witnessed while working in aerospace research could be applied, in reverse, to scale down integrated circuits. He laid out his arguments in a 1959 paper, "Microelectronics and the Art of Similitude." Some argue that Gordon E. Moore was influenced by Engelbart's work in formulating his famous law, which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years [source: Brock; Markoff].

But it was Engelbart's belief that computers could improve our daily experience, add value to our work and boost our brainpower -- a phenomenon he called "bootstrapping" -- that truly set this electrical-engineer-turned-computer-scientist apart [sources: Flynn; Markoff].

The extent of Engelbart's vision and accomplishments became clear in his Dec. 9, 1968, demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference held in San Francisco -- the famous "mother of all demos" in which he unveiled the computer mouse. The demo was possible because Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (aka DARPA), was the second node on ARPANet, the packet-switching papa of the Internet [source: DEI; UC Berkeley].

As he walked the audience through the work he and 17 researchers at SRI's Augmented Human Intellect Research Center had accomplished, he also lifted the curtain on early examples of videoconferencing, word processing, hypertext and networking -- the building blocks of his vision for boosting intelligence and productivity through computers [sources: DEI; Markoff; Stanford; UC Berkeley].

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