June 14, 2005
The "I saw the Doug Engelbart Demo" post

It's a badge to be proud of, almost like when you were 8 and got to stay up late and watch the movie, but a small crowd at Reboot held out for the amazing 1968 Doug Engelbart demo of a fully functional, if mechanically and electronically primitive, visual time sharing computer system.
I took notes during the talk and got at least the following list of things Engelbart had in his system that it has taken time to get to:

Stuff we have today


  • Mouse
  • Visual word processor
  • Outliner
  • Hypertext
  • Metadata searchable text using XPath like expressions (a la XML)
  • Mixed mode drawing and text
  • Presentation software (by way of mixed mode drawing and text + hypertext)
  • Folding (i.e. user defined text visibility)
  • A compiler compiler
  • Terminal forwarding and remote control
  • Menus (by way of hypertext)
Stuff we don't have

  • System modality indicated by sound (e.g. there was a specific carrier tone on when ever some data was in the 'select buffer')
  • Total link addressability (address space = data = address space, it's not metadata grafted on)
  • Cursor's called a bug - even though they also call bugs bugs
  • System built almost entirely using Domain Specific Languages
  • White shirts

The humbling fact about this system is that it took 18 years for Engelbart to put it together. That is a lot of time.

The most intriguing feature to me was the use of sound to indicate system modality. I would love something like that to indicate e.g. a nested layer of concerns that the user needs to wind his way out of. Using classic musical scales here would work - the user would experience a strong desire to bring the system back to the base note of the system after some upset of state had moved it out of there (See earlier notes on same idea: "While working, this code-immersed hacker would listen to delicate code-induced electronica" - Engelbart had that)
I had the opportunity to ask Engelbart about the sound during the Q&A after the film and it turns out that this was semi-accidental design. At some point they added an oscillator to the system and simply drove it off the electronic noise from the equipment. As time passed, they got to know what the various sounds meant - so they kept the sounds on. Engelbart was almost shy about this brilliant idea, suggesting they maybe should have turned it off, as if it was something frivolous. I thought it was great.

Posted by Claus at June 14, 2005 03:05 AM | TrackBack (0)
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