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The Word “Visionary” Is Overused, But It Really Applied to This Man

Back when computers were still just number-crunching machines, Douglas Engelbart foresaw their more powerful application in helping humans collaborate.

One summer day in 2000, I was in the Silicon Valley offices of the computer peripherals maker Logitech for a demonstration of a gimmicky new mouse. It was only mildly interesting, until a soft-spoken older gentleman came into the room. It was Doug Englebart. Because he is credited with inventing the computer mouse, Logitech’s public-relations people were hoping he could help illustrate just how far the device had come since he conjured one out of a block of wood in the 1960s.

As we talked about his inspiration for the original mouse, Engelbart struck me as remarkably humble. The vibe he gave off was “really, I’m fine talking about this, but you know, the mouse wasn’t that big of a deal.” As we talked more that day and on another occasion, what really got Engelbart to light up was the idea that computing could elevate mankind by making it possible for people to collaborate from afar. He had articulated this vision since the 1950s and built key technologies for collaboration in the 1960s. Later he saw these ideas become tangible for everyday people with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, but still in the 2000s he was hoping to see computing’s promise fully realized, with the boosting of our “collective IQ.” Of course in that grand sweep, the mouse was just one small tool.

So as you read the news today of Engelbart’s death at 88, don’t dwell too long on the mouse. Instead you might read about how Engelbart himself was inspired by another visionary from the dawn of the computer age: Vannevar Bush. Howard Rheingold wrote about that beautifully in 1999. (“When I saw the connection between a cathode-ray screen, an information processor, and a medium for representing symbols to a person, it all tumbled together in about half an hour,” Engelbart tells Rheingold, explaining how he was struck by a computer’s possibilities.) Bill Joy also explored the currents that ran through Engelbart and other early computer scientists in a 2005 article for our publication, “The Dream of a Lifetime.”

And above all, don’t miss the video below in which a masterly and cool Engelbart blows the mind of everyone at a 1968 technology conference by introducing hypertext and other elements of computing all at once.

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