I recently learned about a computer demonstration dubbed “The Mother of All Demos” given 40 years ago by Douglas Engelbart at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. Douglas showed off the NLS computer to a crowd of 1000 computer pros. The demo of this system given on December 9, 1968 is now considered one of the most important in modern computing history.
“[Douglas Engelbart] wanted to turn Vannevar Bush‘s idea for a Memex machine into reality, where a machine used interactively by one person could “Augment” their intelligence. Over the course of six years, with the funding help of both NASA and ARPA, his team went about putting together all the elements that would make such a computer system a reality.”
The NLS demo was groundbreaking in that it showed how a computer mouse, video conferencing, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and collaborative editing could be used from a single workstation. These concepts helped define the way we interact with computers and paved the way for the personal computer revolution. Another thing to keep in mind, NLS was made possible by funding from NASA, ARPA, and the U.S. Air Force during a period when ARPA was also building ARPANET, the foundation of the Internet.
As history would have it, some of the demo attendees and NLS system designers ended up working at Xerox PARC and created the Alto. The Alto leads us down an entirely different rabbit hole involving Apple Computer, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft…but that’s a story for another time.
** Computer mouse image courtesy of SRI International