The central figure in Dormouse is Doug Engelbart, whose long-time passion was to build a working version of Vannevar Bush’s “Memex” machine. In the 1940s, while working in Washington, DC, as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush had imagined a “machine that could track and retrieve vast volumes of information,” and he wrote about his idea in the July 1945 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
Engelbart encountered the idea of the Memex while serving as a radar technician in the U.S. Navy during World War II. It took root in his imagination and, in 1950, he had an epiphany, one that guided him and his work for the next two decades. Markoff writes that Engelbart “saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols….He would create a workstation for organizing all of the information and communications needed for any given project….he saw streams of characters moving on the display. Although nothing of the sort existed, it seemed the engineering should be easy to do and that the machine could be harnessed with levers, knobs or switches. It was nothing less than Vannevar Bush’s Memex, translated into the world of electronic computing.”
Engelbart earned a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955, and was soon working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). There, he came across a paper called “Shrinking the Giant Brains for the Space Age,” which had been presented at a conference in June 1959. Its author was Jack Staller of the aerospace firm American Bosch ARMA, who had written, prophetically, “The problem is to compress a room full of digital computation equipment into the size of a suitcase, then a shoe box, and finally small enough to hold in the palm of the hand….Forming on the horizon are solid state circuits or the growing of the whole circuit on a single small solid-state wafer and molecular film techniques where films millionths of an inch thick and equally narrow conductors are built up layer over layer to form whole sections or perhaps complete computers in fractions of cubic inches.”
Then, as Markoff relates, in February 1960, five years before Gordon Moore published an article in Electronics magazine whose assertions would become known as “Moore’s Law,” Doug Engelbart came to the same conclusion that Moore would: that a relentless and inevitable increase in computing capacity would result from the continuous shrinking of the transistor. And he saw that with this increase in capacity, computers would soon be powerful enough to augment the human intellect. This dream – Engelbart’s dream – has led to computing as we know it.
Engelbart found funding from visionary program managers in the federal government, people such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s J. C. R. Licklider, who envisioned computers as a communications tool, and NASA’s Bob Taylor, who later assembled and led the great group of computer scientists who headed Xerox PARC. With their support, Engelbart, from 1960 to 1968, led a team at SRI that implemented a prototype system demonstrating his ideas.
The high point of Dormouse is Markoff’s recounting of Engelbart’s first public presentation, in December 1968, of his “oNLine System” (NLS). Markoff writes, “In one stunning ninety-minute session, [Engelbart] showed how it was possible to edit text on a display screen, to make hypertext links from one electronic document to another, and to mix text and graphics, and even video and graphics. He also sketched out a vision of an experimental computer network to be called ARPAnet and suggested that within a year he would be able to give the same demonstration remotely to locations across the country. In short, every significant aspect of today’s computing world was revealed in a magnificent hour and a half.
“There were two things that particularly dazzled the audience:…First, computing had made the leap from number crunching to become a communications and information-retrieval tool. Second, the machine was being used interactively with all its resources appearing to be devoted to a single individual! It was the first time that truly personal computing had been seen.”