Friday, February 24, 2017

History of Computing II: Mouse forward

The move toward the possibility of a computer that could truly be called "personal" begins in many ways with Douglas Engelbart's 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, how much value could you derive from that?” The question was posed on December 9, 1968, at what has come to be called the "Mother of all Demos," where Engelbart and his team at Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. Unlike anyone else in 1968, Engelbart had some concrete answers to this seemingly abstract question: he was seated at a console which included a chorded keyboard (not unlike that employed by the operator of the "Voder" at the 1939 World's Fair) as well as the first operational three-button mouse, which Engelbart had designed together with Bill English starting in 1963. Using this interface, as well as an audio and video projector, Engelbart demonstrated the other capacities of his system, which included collapsible and relational menus, a simple mapping system, a text editor, and basic programming tools.

Of course the computers that backed up Engelbart's console were still massive, and required a number of other human operators and technicians (he chats with several of them in the course of the demo). It would be nearly another sixteen years before advances in microchips, display screens, and hardware would enable the production of the Apple Macintosh, the first computer to incorporate a mouse along with a graphical user interface (GUI) and some degree of WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) graphics. It was these technologies, much more than earlier screen and keyboard machines, that turned the modest interest in home computers into the revolution in personal computers that enabled the "Internet" age.

Interestingly, although Engelbart is actually depending on a remote set of machines connected over a cable, it would be a long time before the computer was not only an independent platform but also a means of communications. Early modems were slow and unreliable, and took hours to send long files; even then, they more often connected to a remote "host" which was itself isolated from the 'net, such as a BBS system. The earliest version of the Internet, known as ARPANET, was created from plans developed for the US Department of Defense by the RAND corporation, its architecture designed to link DoD facilities with contractors and research universities, with a "distributed" set of nodes which was chosen as the most likely to survive a Soviet nuclear attack. Even well into the late 1980's, when I sent my first e-mail (I was then a grad student doing a work study job at Brown's Graduate School offices) 90% of the traffic on the Internet went from one big host computer to another at universities and research institutes. I remember sending a message to someone with an odd-sounding hostname, and finding out only later that the user was in Tel Aviv, Israel!

The Internet was not opened to commercial traffic of any kind until 1993, and it was around this time that Sir Tim Berners-Lee released his hypertext "world wide web" protocol, and Mosaic, the first widely-used browser, came into use. This software, because it enabled terminal-to-terminal communication using an interface which worked in much the same way as the GUI's of individual computers (well, Macs in any case!), was the key step toward the 'net becoming a true mass medium. And it was only then that the answer, or rather answers, to Engelbart's question became clear, with nearly two billion Internet users worldwide, and global e-commerce quickly becoming the dominant means of trade and exchange throughout the developed world. And, of course, the humble "intellectual worker" -- such as yours truly -- has, and continues to derive great value from all this; in the case of my most recent book, which took about six years to research, I'd estimate that, without access to Internet-based historical materials, the project would have taken at least twice and long, and cost tens of thousands of dollars in airfare to travel to and search through archives around the world.


  1. You've got mail!
    I lived through the transition from answering machines, to pagers, to cell phones to the internet as a constant companion. Steve Case of AOL gave me many many free floppy discs as he did in fact put "America Online". I remember the little thrill of hearing "you've got mail" and having it show up electronically. At least, until someone picked up another phone extension and interrupted my high frequency chirping carrier signal fun. Downloading a picture was also a bit like Christmas. Anticipation as it revealed itself unrolling from the top of the screen. Sloooowly! Connecting to people with email instead of "snail mail" certainly increased my networking for business, as well as making Thank You notes to relatives fast and painless. As the "Always On" paradigm came into play, I discovered that my entire business could be run from my current location on a laptop and later right from my iPhone. Today, if I forget my cell phone, I feel really nervous and uncomfortable. I could be missing something important! Horrors, how did I survive without neurotica before always-on internet! Now I see entire families at restaurants ignoring each other as they stare into the blue glow and mindlessly shovel food into their mouths. This is A Bridge Too Far. Unplug and smell reality! Oh, and hang up and drive! OMG and LOL can wait for a non life threatening opportunity to respond. On vacation to Martha's Vineyard my niece would ignore the people, the beach, the shops, the scenery and other people because she looked panic stricken at the idea of not checking Facebook every 15 minutes. People need psychiatric help to ween from always-on internet. I cringe at parties when someone says "check out this video on YouTube...". Time to go! The technology has isolated us at the same time it has connected us. Be very afraid.

    1. Ah, those were the days! Should you wish to hear it again, that immortal phrase can still be found here. And yes, I agree, as the capacities of our devices have grown, the danger that we will put our trust in them, instead of in our own senses, grows.

  2. The Internet and Web continue to expand and evolve like the computer itself. It is now portable with the advent of technologically advanced phones and devices, and more recently with Smart watches and glasses. Drones are now being utilized to provide networks in rural villages with no telephone or satellite access. The Internet gives us freedom. As far as we know “Big Brother” is not keeping tabs on our virtual web travels. It most certainly is a bargain lover’s dream, especially when there is no cost for long-distance communication. In fact the Internet does not actually exist as an entity and never charges for anything. As the paradoxes go, “the internet belongs to everyone and no one”, and no one owns or is in charge of the Internet, but yet everyone is. Dr. Potter’s statistics may seem startling, but with the integration of Web Accessibility for those with disabilities and the means of providing networks to far off, isolated locations, the Internet and Web surfers may one day near 100 percent. Indeed through innovation, research, and dedication these last two decades have birthed monumental accomplishments for the world of technology, and the impact has been both positive and negative. I agree with Tony, technology has both connected and isolated us. As adults we really need to be aware of latter. I work in healthcare, and one of the biggest challenges with the new generation of workers is being able to communicate with patients. It seems just making 'small talk' is a dauting task. Where I teach there is more emphasis than ever on effective communication. I am not sure where we are headed, but I think if we address the problems technology is posing, rather than ignore or complain (as I often do) about them, we can focus on what the Internet and Web were designed to do, which is to keep us connected to one another.

  3. Just thinking about how advance computers are now, it is crazy to think about what the future might hold. Just now I am doing my "homework" on my phone, not on a computer with a keyboard, my phone doesn't even have a keyboard built in but instead a touch interface that acts in the same way as a keyboard. This keyboard has settings to vibrate and make sounds when pressed to give off that annoying clicking sensation that one can enjoy on a physical keyboard. This is one example, but how about that new Windows computer that is not only a computer, but also a tablet, but isn't only an oversized tablet but is also a drawing pad. Will insert link below. How about Apples new slogans for their iPad Pros, "Imagine what your computer could do if your computer was an iPad Pro" or "Better than a computer, iPad Pro". The power of these computers are just amazing, a bit underwhelming at times but at the price of a computer my aunt had bought many years ago that operates in Windows Vista that really can't do more than the basics at the price point of 1000 dollars (not including tax and warranty if she went that route) to the ipad pro (same cost or lower) you really do get something "Better than a computer".


    Ipad Pro: