Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Computer History: Doug Engelbart

I went to a talk yesterday. It was the 40th anniversary of Doug Engelbart's 1968 "mother of all demos". In the demo, Engelbart demonstrated:
  • The first computer mouse
  • The first graphical user interface
  • The first personal, interactive, networked computer
  • The first use of hypertext (i.e. text with links)
I had heard about the demo but never watched it. It's available on YouTube, and it's definitely a must see. Doug had a grand vision of using the computer as a tool to help people accelerate how quickly they could solve problems. That goal has always fascinated me.

Robert Taylor, whose funding led to the creation of the ARPANET, told a pretty good joke, which he himself said was probably apocryphal. Rather than retell it, I grabbed a copy from here:
Whenever you build an airplane, you have to make sure that each part weighs no more than allocated by the designers, and you have to control where the weight it located to keep the center of gravity with limits. So there is an organization called weights which tracks that.

For the 747-100, one of the configuration items was the software for the navigation computer. In those days (mid-1960s), the concept of software was not widely understood. The weight of the software was 0. The weights people didn't understand this so they sent a guy to the software group to understand this. The software people tried mightily to explain that the software was weightless, and the weights guy eventually went away, dubious.

The weights guy comes back a few days later with a box of punch cards (if you don't know what a punch card is, e-mail me and I will explain). The box weighed about 15 pounds. The weights guy said "This box contains software". The software guys inspected the cards and it was, in fact, a computer program. "See?", the weights guy said, "This box weighs about 15 pounds". "You don't understand", the software guys responded, "The software is in the holes".
Allan Kay was also there. Allan is always fascinating to listen to. He said something that I thought was useful. He said that there is a difference between "new" and "news". "News" is when something happens and you get an update that it happened. News is simple and easy to assimilate. Something is "new" when it changes the rules of the game. When something is "new", it's impossible to fully understand the ramifications.

He had a great example. When the printing press came out, people thought it was "news". Suddenly, it was cheaper to print books. What they didn't understand was that it was actually "new". The printing press allowed ideas to spread more quickly, more broadly, and more accurately than ever before. It was impossible for them to understand just how profoundly the printing press would affect the world.

4 comments:

Ian Bicking said...

I haven't gotten through the entire demo yet, but I must admit on my geeky side I was really curious what the byte representation of the files is. How did all those pointers and structures work?

It also reminded me of Oberon, which is a kind of modern UI made by old guys (Wirth). The way he interacted with the text was similar, with the different points in the text and the somewhat more concrete nature of the text (as opposed to the more widgety system we're used to now).

Shannon -jj Behrens said...

> I haven't gotten through the entire demo yet, but I must admit on my geeky side I was really curious what the byte representation of the files is. How did all those pointers and structures work?

Haha! Me too!

> It also reminded me of Oberon

Interesting. I had heard of the programming language, but I hadn't of the OS. I just read about it on Wikipedia. Thanks.

Ian Bicking said...

I personally found the Oberon UI far more interesting than the language or OS. I think because novelty in UI like that is uncommon. There's video game UI, but it's all bling and constraints, not information manipulation. I think new versions of Oberon might be using a more conventional UI.

Shannon -jj Behrens said...

Ah, a man after my own heart. There isn't enough fundamental UI innovation, so seeing fundamental UI innovation is always such a treat.