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Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing

In a historic demonstration 40 years ago, researchers from the Stanford Research Institute revealed the future of interactive computing. In 90 minutes of high-end show and tell, Douglas Engelbart and his team introduced the computer mouse, hypertext links, multiple windows, shared-screen collaboration involving remote sites and dynamic file linking. The audience gave them a standing ovation.

Known by some as "the mother of all demos," the presentation by Engelbart and Bill English at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968, has taken on almost mythical proportions in the computing industry.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of that presentation, SRI is assembling many of the original demo participants for an afternoon of reminiscence and forward-looking discussion entitled Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing on Dec. 9, 2008 at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

In an interview, English retold the story of the first mouse, the pointing device that changed computing. In the early 1960s, Engelbart's research group, the Augmentation Research Center, held a NASA contract to develop a better way to select items on computer display screens. English, SRI's chief engineer, managed the project.

The light pen and the joystick had already been invented, but didn't work well. The team looked for new ideas. "We had a foot control that was a total loss and a knee control that worked pretty well," he said.

The research changed paths when Engelbart showed English an idea he had sketched out in his pocket notebook. It was essentially a joystick turned upside down. "We took that sketch and expanded it into a mouse," English said. The first prototype was built in 1964, carved out of a block of wood by a shop worker. It had two wheels; one to sense left/right movement, the other to sense forward/backward moves. The device was connected to the computer with a wire, making its name obvious. "It was sitting on the table with a tail coming out of it," English said.

In all the years since, he said, there has been only one "profound addition" to the original mouse: the scroll wheel.

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