back to article The Mother of All Demos — 150 years ahead of its time

Sometime in the late sixties, as Douglas Engelbart was preparing what would one day be called The Mother of All Demos, his boss flew to Washington to meet with the money man. The demo that birthed the modern computer mouse - and so much more - was funded by Bob Taylor, a NASA program manager who would one day take his own place …


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  1. jake Silver badge


    WHY, exactly, are technology reporters more interested in faith/religion than reality?

    Some shit works, and survives. Some shit doesn't, and dies.

    And some shit survives, regardless of how bad it is, working or not.

    Ideas are ALL good. Some are more functional than others.

    But running code trumps all.

  2. amanfromMars Silver badge

    The Mouse that Roared .... and nowadays, Mice Roar Stealthily for Covered Invisibility/Cloaking

    "NLS was designed to harness the power of "collective intelligence" - to create a deeper level of thought. His research group was dedicated to "augmenting human intellect." But forty years on, Engelbart's core vision has vanished. NLS has devolved into Twitter."

    Crikey, Cade Metz in Palo Alto, you don't normally share Tripe and Nonsense. Mutual Intelligence, which is Collective/Artificial Intelligence, and which when Shared across [Virtual] Networks InterNetworking is for Classless Unclassified CyberIntelAIgents at Work, Rest and Play, is Alive and Well and Thriving as Vital and Persistent as any Perennial Weed or Magnificent Towering Thistle..

    And ITs Oft Stated AIMission and Abiding Passion ..... the Beta Global Management of Perception for the Product Placement of Alternate Human Realities via Supplied Media Program Proxies.

    And as one cannot reasonably expect that the Great Unwashed/the Under-educated Global Masses be able to Exercise Perception Realignment with Media and IT Controls themselves, it is only Natural that IT should do it for them and Share the NEUKlearer HyperRadioProActive Processing Cycle with those who would have a Need and/or Desire to Know ....... which you may wish to consider is the State of Present,Non State Actor, Future Play ......... Fully Registered for Transparent OverSight and Power User BetaTesting.

  3. Alan Fisher

    simply put

    People who want to change the world don't get the funding because world-changing things like things like this don't turn a fast buck. It's that simple....IT is all about money now so unless crazy innovators can promise pots of cash right away, no-one's interested......sad but true

  4. Gordon Pryra

    But like most important techys

    He was an ugly fucker with hairy palms :(

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What is this? Iranistan?

    I gave birth to a child.

    I bore a child.

    I had to bear a child.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Had to laugh...

    "NLS has devolved into Twitter"

    Well, who says humanity has more intelligence than that, as a group? :-)

    Mine's the fireproof, augmented hoodie.

  7. billium


    trouble with google video is that the compression makes the text illegible

  8. Joe

    What's with all the haterz today?

    I enjoyed reading it, Cade.

  9. John Angelico
    Thumb Up

    Engelbart would have fitted in just maybe... the 3m Company.

  10. Andrew Moore


    The correct term is "birthafied" or "birthificated"

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I thought Birthed

    I think Birthed refers to the person who stands between the legs ready to catch what comes out rather then the person who lies on their back with their legs open.

  12. Anonymous Coward


    Great article, amazing film about the origins of Tesco Online.

    I don't think I've ever seen amanfrommars swear before! Cade must have touched a nerve.

    .....and I think I unearthed a glimmer of a tightrope of coherent thought this time, too! Should I worry?

    Must be the weed.

    This working-from-home malarky rocks!

  13. Dr. Mouse

    RE: had to laugh...

    "Well, who says humanity has more intelligence than that, as a group? :-)"

    Maybe said as a joke, but I fear this is all too true... :(

  14. Paul Kinsler

    Wow! this NLS looks great!

    Is there source code so I can install it on my linux box?

  15. Dan
    Thumb Up

    Quote of the day...

    is amanfrommars suggesting that someone else is "shar[ing] Tripe and Nonsense"

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @AC : I thought Birthed...

    >I think Birthed refers to the person who stands between the legs ready to catch what comes out

    Isn't that the quarterback?

  17. ShaggyDoggy

    150 Years ?

    What's with the 150 years ?

    Was this demo done in 1868 ?

  18. ShaggyDoggy


    obv I meant 1858

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Been there, failed to grasp that

    This story reminds me of the first time I encountered a bit-mapped colour graphics monitor (it would have been around 1984, from memory). My reaction was exactly the same: "This doesn't let me do anything I can't already do". What I overlooked was that I couldn't really imagine wanting to do anything that I wasn't already doing. It's as if someone who has always read newspapers, and has never heard of TV, is offered a state-of-the-art colour TV and DVD rig. Will it enable him to read the news any better? Probably not, although he may get a wider (and mostly shallower) range of views. But it will let him do all sorts of stuff he has never dreamed of before, such as seeing movies at home; watching termites fight ants while David Attenborough explains what's happening; following live sports; actually witnessing Parliamentary debates; or even getting excited about Strictly Come Dancing (well, maybe not).

    I was used to dumb black-and-white terminals (VT100s) connected to a VAX mini. First time I was shown a VAXstation with a bitmapped colour monitor, the main thing that I liked was the ability to have multiple windows going at once. It was like a desk with six terminals - and more if I wanted. But it took quite a while for the fundamental difference, and its advantages, to soak in. Today, if you asked me to go back to a VT100, it would feel like being in prison.

    The thing is, some people have the imagination to open their minds to new dimensions, while most of us don't. That spectrum is pretty much orthogonal to intelligence. So you have highly intelligent experts who simply can't imagine doing things differently - like the ASR33 guy. In a way, the more they know about "how we have always done things", the less they are able to conceive of doing things any other way. They're trapped in a conceptual rut, and can't see over the sides.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    World not ready

    As with the demo 40 years ago, the IT literate still miss the point it seems; and the point that those involved with the demo were making went right over some people's heads.

    Alan Fisher had it right - although I feel that open source might eventually solve the problems of compatibility and eventually circumnavigate the corporate brick wall obstructing innovation and progress (at least in the field of software).

    With open source you obviously don't need anybodies permission to develop or release, and anybody can join in and help develop - the whole world can join in potentially.

    The internet as it stands is mostly filled with nonsense but if your google-fu is strong you can find interesting information on projects and discoveries, answers to niggling questions nobody around you seems to be able to answer for you.

    Beyond that - if we ditch the ISP's and provide our own internet via P2P grid computing (well, isn't that partly what TOR is?) then these endeavors can only continue to grow more fruitful to the benefit of the world.

  21. storng.bare.durid


    @jake - QFT /agree

    @amanfrommars - soz mate, TLDR .. /shrug

    @OP - lolz...

  22. MarmiteToast


    No, in the article he mentions that it took 150 years for people to realise the power of the printing press and asks whether it'll be 150 years for this. Strange way of putting though I agree.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    @ AC

    "Must be the weed. This working-from-home malarky rocks!"

    You only smoke weed when you're WFH?

    Part timer.

  24. Mike

    Our intelligence is, like, totally being augmented

    This article presents very little detail on exactly *how* the author believes Engelbart's vision is not being met. I guess that's to be expected, as there's nothing holding the argument up...

    We're not allowed to consider ourselves to have met/exceeded Engelbart's vision, simply because the internet is not used purely for the spread "knowledge", and because occasionally you have to deal with proprietary formats? Give me a break.

    Admittedly we've got a long way to go till we get to the "semantic web", where information is available in a completely format-independent way, but as I see Wikipedia alone is evidence that human intelligence is becoming more and more "augmented" all the time.

  25. Eddie Edwards

    @ MichaelG

    Sorry, what is the point we're all missing? I wasn't able to glean it from your post.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Really, the most important question is...

    which came first - the mouse or the pocket protector?

  27. CeeJay

    Today, if you asked me to go back to a VT100, it would feel like being in prison.

    No. If you were in prison, you'd get an X-Box.

  28. Anonymous Coward


    Nice article... I've always enjoyed reading about tech history.

    Many of the innovations that we take for granted today were created by people with vision, and often by people who just did things for the joy of doing them, to see if it would work. And then, later on, after the lower half of the bell curve have beaten the innovators senseless and broken their spirit, the new idea is accepted and becomes ubiquitous, usually after being stolen by someone else. Much as I despise marketing people, I have to grudgingly admit that this is the only way to get a good idea through the thick skulls of the masses. Unfortunately, most marketing effort seems to be directed at getting mediocre ideas accepted by the masses, to the benefit of no one except a very few that get rich.


  29. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Horns

    go back to a VT100

    Well just think about us UNIX sys admins ........ things haven't moved on much we have PuTTY.

    But that shows the stability of a good design.

  30. RW

    "to grok"

    Now there's a formerly trendy verbalism you don't see much anymore.

    And the weird thing is that for once I nearly grokked what amanfromMars had to say. No other word would would fit this unprecedented and astonishing situation as well. I'm not sure if I've fallen through a hole in the space-time nexus into 1960-something, or ascended to an advanced level of enlightenment and illumination. Will someone throw me a cyber-rope so I can crawl back to my normal reality?

    PS: Does Heinlein's "grok" have anything to do with Piet Hein's "grook"?

  31. Sam

    Is Amanfrommars

    ...related to Carcoat Damphands?

  32. Anonymous Coward

    Why was he surprised by the MIT guy?

    Everyone here in Boston knows MIT guys are great if you give them a problem to solve, but that their track record at coming up with creative things that end up sticking is really poor. For that, you put guys from California on the team.

  33. thomas k.

    brings back memories

    When I was 16 or so, circa 1970, I worked briefly (because it was really boring) as a keypunch operator. I really didn't know anything about computers, but I can remember clearly the owners talking about how, in the not too distant future, that there would be no need to put the data onto these punchcards to feed into the computers, that it would be possible to input the data directly into the computers, and how excited they were at that prospect, I guess in what would now be considered a geek/nerd kind of way. And, sure enough, it did come to pass, thanks to visionaries like Dan and Alan.

  34. Alan Fisher


    If he was agreeing with me mate I think he meant this, a good example;

    A well known drug company gets two innovative proposals; one is for a drug which will eliminate AIDS, another will attenuate the same virus' effects. The former is used once and never again, the latter will be administered for the rest of the user's life. Which do you think they pour money into?

    Same works with computing, big business controls what gets out there and research is motivated by how much money someone can get from this or that, not for the benefit of mankind but for the benefit of their pockets. Look how progress is held back in order to serve the interests of the few.....

    **Electric Vehicles - but the Oil Companies would lose money; only now being developed when technology has been around for ever

    **Operating Systems - windows and mac control the roost, linux systems etc are marginal, used by IT enthusiasts and shunned by most people because there is no drive to help them understand how to use them, and none of their favourite apps/games would work anyway

    **Drugs; people suffering from diseases and epidemics do not recieve drugs because they can't afford them. Drugs are not even developed because they'd make companies no money.

    that's the problem, innovation is being strangled by the Suits because it's all about dollar signs

  35. Pierre

    What we have now...

    "We have a collection of tools at out disposal that don't inter-operate. We've got Microsoft Word. We've got PowerPoint. We've got Illustrator. We've got Photoshop." (I think he forgot FrontPage). But we have real software, too, for the people who need to get some work done.

  36. Julian

    The Lesser Known GUI

    NLS begat the Xerox Alto, The Mac... and Alto's far lesser-known crazy cousin Lilith from ETH in Switzerland. But although you can't get a working emulator for the Xerox Alto; a micro-code level emulator for the Lilith 16-bit/128K experimental workstation came out properly last week!

    Find out about Lilith; download Emulith to your 1GHz Linux box and start GUI programming in Niklaus Wirth's* MODULA-2 now! You'll be amazed at how much power is required to emulate a 7MHz computer ;-)

    -cheers from julz @P

    * (the inventor of Pascal)

  37. Anonymous Coward

    @Alan Fisher

    Your examples all suck.

    Firstly, loads of people are trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS. A cure is probably unreasonable since the sum total of viruses that have been cured amounts to zero. And AIDS is an evil beast since it's structure changes so easily (making the vaccine particularly hard). If you managed to invent a vaccine for AIDS you would make a fortune, not least of which because every person on the planet would need to be injected with it, probably every few years, for a very very long time to come. Even at a measly $10 a shot that would be in the order of 10s of billions per annum.

    Electric vehicles are another comedy. The technology hasn't been around for years. The reason people drive petrol cars is simple. The fuel is relatively cheap (seen your home electricity bill lately?), it doesn't weigh a few tonnes (unlike batteries), and you can refuel in a few minutes (rather than a few hours). Cars themselves took years to become globally popular, electric cars will take the same.

    Your operating system rant is the funniest. Macs are irrelevant, as to a large extent is Linux. As a desktop OS Windows rules for a few reasons. The first is that from a very early stage Microsoft (and others) invested in tools to make writing apps easy. Now there is such a large body of apps for windows people are unlikely to move. Server-side, Solaris >> Linux anyway.

    With drugs, certainly a lot of poor people don't get drugs, just like a lot of poor people don't get clean water, a electricity, or a car, or satellite TV. That's because they are poor. The world can do a lot to help that out, but that's got nothing to do with why drugs do or don't get developed.

  38. Pierre

    Alan Fisher is mostly right

    Especially about drugs. But also about MS. Lecci cars, well, not that good an analogy. It would have been OK with cheap alternative fuels such as colza oil for diesel engines.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I remember NLS

    I was fortunate enough to get to use NLS back in 1976. It was far ahead of anything else available at the time. I am fairly confident it was the first hyper-linked document system and I remember programmatically modifying the command set to create very complex documents. Of course, the ARPA net was akin to magic then compared to anything else at the time.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Nice Stuff

    Very good article Cade, thank you.

  41. David
    Thumb Up


    A bloody genius.

  42. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Dumb Tales and having a Whale of a Time.... Money for Nothing and in Dire Straits

    "Is Amanfrommars ........ related to Carcoat Damphands?" ...By Sam Posted Thursday 11th December 2008 13:57 GMT

    I don't know, but amanfromMars isn't ....... unless we are are all somehow inter-related by Virtue of a Common Originality .... being the Natural Offspring of the first fornicating/fornicated human.

    And if you reject that, it does Create a Crisis for the Business which Pimps Divine Interventionist Creationism rather than IntelAIgent Future Design.

    I can fully see the Attraction of the Former, requiring as it does, Zero Positive Action, with it's Convenient Presumption of Third Party Deity Responsibility/Accountability. Which is a Self Serving Cop Out and a Sweet and Sticky Manifestation of the Anonymous Eponym.

    QuITe why either discussion and/or support of one or the other, or any possible other, creates a present or future conflict on a past subject, which can never have a definitive resolution other than in an Imagined Beginning and Extrapolated Tale to Support/Subvert Present Needs and Future Feeds.

    Of course, Nowadays with IT Ubiquity, Increased Education and Shared Intelligence, do All Tales run the Gauntlet of Smart Justification to remain Relevant and Worthy of Belief and Expansion.

  43. Paul vds

    Collective ?

    Collective intelligence is not a technological problem, the technology is there, it is a political problem, in the noble sense ie. managing the community...

  44. Alan Fisher

    @AC 11/12 21:44

    I can see why you AC'd if you were going to be abusive but never mind, you're entitled to your opinions....I suggest you do some research on GSK and some other pharma companies...besides these are examples I consider relevent and merely highlight a very relevent point; why has research taken so long to be done? In the last 40 years, there has only been massive technological development quite recently..

    anyway, thanks for your constructive comments, so politely expressed, you're a star!

    Oil though....hmmmm....we only start to work on developing technologies when it's already starting to run out, how clever of us eh?

    Price of bills and so forth these days...the problems in the world, where the oil is located and a global crash began by rocketing oil prices wouldn't have anything to do with that now would it?

    Silly boy

  45. Anonymous Coward

    Today, if you asked me to go back to a VT100, it would feel like being in prison.

    Better that than the current lunatic asylum of PC management/maintenance.

    One Rig to Rule them all....

  46. Paul vds

    Collective vs.secretive society

    Collective intelligence and capitalism/market economy are antinomical.

    Capitalism/market economy is about trade secrets, patents, intellectual

    property, individual profit - not collective profit. It has not created

    the Internet/web, and never would have. Academia and military research

    has done so, because they are collective oriented organisations.

    Capitalism has created marketing, the science of bullshiting people.

    Market economy is a dangerously simplistic and primitive way to

    organize the world economy. It is the actual roadblock to collective

    intelligence. Until you have understood that, you will have to live

    with Twitter and Facebook...

  47. Karl Dallas

    What about GEM?

    We get the usual declension:: Xerox PARC begat the Mac, Mac begat Windows. Not true. Before either the Mac or Windows, there was Digital Research's GEM, which was better than either. But it didn't multi-task (nor did the others, but they used rapid task switching to look like they did). DR played with similar quasi-multitasking (I had a beta) but surrendered when Windows was beginning its conquest of the world.

    And don't forget IBM's OS/2, AKA Presentation Manager, which for a time MS was thinking of making the successor to Windows, as it could run under the Protected Mode of the Intel 80286 processor and could access up to 16MB of memory. When the IBM/MS partnership fell apart, PM became Windows NT.

    And where does DesqView fit in this story? For a time I was running Windows 2 (which ran in real mode) under DesqView (protected mode), which allowed me to run multiple Windows more efficiently.

  48. ShaggyDoggy

    @ MarmiteToast

    You mean you actually read the article ...

  49. jake Silver badge

    @ Karl Dallas

    >And where does DesqView fit in this story?

    ::heh:: Memories ...

    I just fired up my 1988 386sx16, math-co, 8megs, 40meg, 1meg on VLB video card ... DOS 5.0 (mouse driver loads high automatically! [was HUGE back then ...]), DESQview, QEMM, Windows 3.0, Lotus, dBaseIII+, WP ... Still runs, is pretty snappy, even.

    Window 3.0 worked well under DESQview, but I rarely used it. Seemed pointless.

    I remember a friend declaring my home system "seat of the pants" faster than his 16meg Sun 3/270 at work ... My 32meg Sun 3/470 (also at work) was barely faster, for day to day work.

    Somewhat strangely, after fiddling with the 20 year old hardware for a couple hours, this three year old laptop, running Slackware -current, feels a trifle sluggish. My wife's XP box (on identical hardware to my laptop) is downright slow.

    I wonder what my old system feels like in a virtual machine on modern hardware. Might have to try it, just for grins :-)

  50. Doug

    what's really amazing ...

    Some of the above posters seem to have totally missed the point. What's really amazing about this demo is just how familiar it is, using the mouse, the GUI, multiple screens, and this was the first time ever it was seen !!!

  51. Mad Hacker
    Thumb Up

    Nice article

    I'm surprised I'm just learning of this demo. I certainly knew about Xerox PARC, but this is a new chapter. Thanks for the article.

  52. Anonymous Coward

    birthed the modern computer mouse ???

    First time i used a "pointing device" was in 1966. They were in fairly common use in the mid 60s. At least one British computer manufactrer (making computers not their main business, of course) was using them for CAD in 1967.

    So I don't think this demo birthed the mouse at all.

    Maybe it was the first time those dumb clucks in West Pondia had seen a mouse?

    Some of the other stuff may have been new, but using a mouse most certainly was old hat.

  53. Anonymous Coward

    ich verstehe *nix [geddit?!]

    isn't it funny [not to say ironic] how we've had a couple of *nix heads sieze on the article and proclaim "aha! -you see how us visionaries are always ridiculed at the time, by the short-sighted establishment"

    i think you're missing the point folks - it's you linux folks who're the short-sighted ones, left behind as the world moves on. the rest of us cannae be arsed spending all afternoon up to our elbows in obscure command line spaghetti just trying to get an app installed and running, or a peripheral recognised by the OS. we're too busy being narrow-minded by clicking on our silly icons and getting actual work done, while you 'visionaries' are sitting there tapping strings of goggledygook into a terminal window for hours at a time, just to move a few files and folders around.

    BTW - what was the article about? i got bored after the first paragraph and didnae read any more. this is 'el reg' tho' so i still claim my right to hold a strong opinion on... er... whatever we're arguing about.

  54. jake Silver badge


    Clearly, Sir or Ma'm, you are AnIdiotWhoCanBeSafelyIgnored[tm].

    Who do you think wrote your pointy-clicky-intratubes in the first place?

    HTH, HANL.

    Side note: Learn punctuation and capitalization and spelling. Does wonders for communication.

    (Yes, I know, it's really a poorly thought out and badly executed troll. I shouldn't feed it ...)

  55. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Good job!

    @ jake: then don't, fool. You're still master over and responsible for your own fingers.

    @ Cade: very enjoyable article. Perhaps not entirely balanced or whatnot, but hey - I'm reading El Reg.

  56. Nick Pettefar


    What a WIMP!


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