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How Douglas Engelbart Invented the Future

Two decades before the personal computer, a shy engineer unveiled the tools that would drive the tech revolution.

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Engelbart started with a provocative question: “If in your office, you, as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day, and was instantly responsive to every action you have—how much value could you derive from that?”

Then he began to type, using a keyboard with numbers and letters instead of inputting information with a punch card. Text appeared on the screen: Word word word word. “If I make some mistakes, I can back up a little bit,” he noted, proudly showing off his new delete function. He announced that he was going to save the document. “Oh, I need a name,” he explained, and titled it “Sample File.” He showed that he could copy the text—and paste it again and again.

Next, Engelbart pulled up a shopping list onto the screen: apples, bananas, soup, beans. He moved the items up and down the list with simple clicks, organizing produce with produce, canned goods with canned goods, dairy with dairy.

“But there’s another thing I can do,” he declared. He pulled up a map of his route home, with stops along the way. “Library. What am I supposed to do there?” he asked. A click on the word Library pulled up another list. “Oh, I see. Overdue books.” He went back to the map and clicked on the word Drugstore. Another list popped up, showing items like aspirin and Chapstick.

It wasn’t just the software that was revolutionary. Engelbart had also invented a new tracking device with the help of Bill English, an engineer on his team. As the small device rolled, a dot on the screen rolled along with it. “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart remarked.