back to article The eulogising of The Mother Of All Demos at 50 is Silicon Valley going goo-goo for gurus again

There was a time, happy days, when no one wanted to read about the titans of tech. Or so the editors at the newspapers thought. When John Markoff and Gregg Pascal were doing the technology beat at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in the late 1980s respectively, they told me they found it impossible to draw a general …

  1. ForthIsNotDead


    I remember watching this demo a few years and being fairly impressed, but I was left with a kind of 'what is all the fuss about?' kind of feeling. It wasn't until later that I became aware of just how primitive computer technology was back in the late 60s.

    The word 'visionary' is oft overused these days, but I think Englebart was a visionary in the true sense of the word. But he was more than a pontificating academic. He was engineering and building these systems with his assistants and students. He was looking at least 20 years into the future (we got the first rudimentart GUIs in the early 80s, I guess you could argue) and was building them in 1968.

    One wonders what impact he had, both directly and indirectly on the state of the art of computing in modern times.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Icon

      Interactive tech in the 60s from MIT and the burgeoning MIC:

      SAGE - Semi Automatic Ground Environment - Part 1/2

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Icon

      " It wasn't until later that I became aware of just how primitive computer technology was back in the late 60s."

      back in the 60's the only perception most people had about computers were:

      a) big hunks of iron with spinning reel to reel tape drives on them;

      b) mysterious sciency things that threatened your job security and impersonally made 'errors' that you could not get corrected (like your bank statement)

      c) that, like a hollywood robot (think 'Lost In Space' and the Bat Computer) could just answer abstract questions and had infinite stores of encyclopedic knowledge

      Oh, and the "punch card" thing. that's how they were programmed, most of the time. And so, when you verbally asked your computer for an answer, it would be spat out on a - you guessed it - a punch card.

      1. Dr Who

        Re: Icon

        So in terms of end user perception of computers, not much has changed then.

        1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge

          Re: Icon

          "So in terms of end user perception of computers, not much has changed then."

          Exactly. "Cloud Computing", for example, is just the latest shiny marketing re-badging term for "time sharing", etc.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Icon

        "impersonally made 'errors' that you could not get corrected (like your bank statement)"

        I tended to find they weren't actually errors.

  2. Nosher

    You could go further and say that Englebart invented the mouse in the same way that Edison invented the lightbulb - i.e. both get credit for things that had either been invented before, or at least contemporaneously, somewhere else. In this case, Englebart's Joseph Swan was Telefunken, which had already built a ball-based mouse - this being closer to mice we know today as Englebart's was x-y only - a few weeks before the MOAD

    1. Dapprman

      Let us not forget that Englebart's pre-ARPA experimentation used mechanical levers in a cabinet.

      BTW was it not Joseph Licklider who was a big influence on Englebart's funding and career? - I'm asking as my memories are fuzzy but I first read about the pair and work leading up to the Mother of all Demos back in the mid 1990s, when there was a lot less hype.

    2. Chairman of the Bored

      Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

      I just learned something! Thanks!

      War story - a rotten, horrible, no-good day in the life of the Chairman:

      Back in the days of unreliable Microsoft ball-based mice I was the sole mechanical tinkerer in the office. Naturally I ended up maintainer of all rodents, and had an impressive collection of dirty, fuzzy balls in my drawers.

      Upon opening my *desk* drawer one morning I found someone had, ahem, pinched my balls.

      Enraged I called out in an open-plan office: "Damn it! Who has seen my balls?!" Unbeknownst to me there was a small gathering on secretaries a few meters away who damned near wet themselves with laughter. I was dating one of them at the time... Worse still, for weeks every time I went for a whizz someone would put on a concerned face and ask me, "How's it hangin'?"

      From then on I always kept a weather eye on my balls. Does that make me a visionary, too?

      1. Aladdin Sane

        Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

        Some balls are held for charity

        and some for fancy dress...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

          It's been quite a number of years since I upgraded from balls to a laser.

          Pew pew....

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

          > Some balls are held for charity

          Whereas other balls are held only when someone pays.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

        I miss my balls; scraping the fuzz and crud off them was always strangely satisfying. As long as you knew it was only your own balls you were tinkering with. Someone else's? Disgusting.

      3. bombastic bob Silver badge

        Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

        "Unbeknownst to me there was a small gathering on secretaries a few meters away"

        Lucky you it wasn't 2018 - "modern" policies would've gotten you fired, or worse, subjected to "sensitivity training"

        1. Chairman of the Bored

          Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

          The Chairman has to get sensitivity training?

          Um, yeah... I did, just last year. Now I'm bitter and vaguely hostile.

          Last year a woman got "triggered" by my snack. I was late and rushed into my office. I absentmindedly grabbed my fruit supply out of my messenger bag, chucked it on my desk, and started logging into all my desktops.

          Didn't realize my banana was resting on top of a couple of mandarin oranges in a way that was "sexually suggestive" "repulsive" and "triggering".

          Oh fsck me! If I'd had been going for that effect I would've used a long Chinese eggplant and a couple of coconuts.

          I won my appeal. But after all the publicity, sometimes a subordinate brings me two mound-shaped cupcakes with a perky lookin cherry on top of each. Hmmmm....

          1. EVP

            Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

            ”Oh fsck me! If I'd had been going for that effect I would've used a long Chinese eggplant and a couple of coconuts.”

            You naughty boy. If there ever comes time when you decide to go for the effect, may I propose that you shaved the coconuts before placing them into a ”triggering” pose.

            I sometimes just wonder that why people who see everywhere "sexually suggestive" "repulsive" and "triggering" things don’t have to go to see a shrink, but it’s someone else who has to do it instead.

            It’s a strange world. Nuts everywhere.

            1. Chairman of the Bored

              Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

              Shaved! Now that's an idea. One thing that really pisses me off about getting yanked into the head shed is that I'm so old, so married, and seen so much weird ship in the service that it's physically impossible for me to care less what two consenting adults do with their I/O ports.

              Just don't scan each others ports with company resources, because we do not budget resources for it. Keep your connectors clean and put them in your drawers when you are done. Simple.

              On a related topic, we will know when AI is truly here when my "RF Connectors" and "Waveguide Caharacteristics" wall posters are considered pr0n and have to go away. I guess my DB-9 and -25 pinouts will be considered 'classic pr0n'

              I miss my Rigid Tool calendar.

          2. Sloppy Crapmonster

            Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

            pics or it didn't happen

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

        I've heard of a variation on that open-plan office story. A parallel port security key went missing from his desk, and the guy yelled out without thinking "Who's pinched my dongle!?".

        1. Chairman of the Bored

          Re: Telefunken invented the balled mouse?

          Hands off my dongle!

          Only recent one we had was a tech sending out a mass email complaining he cannot find any aerospace-grade nuts in his drawers.

          This is why natural language processing is hard! Oh, I didn't mean it that way. It just slipped out...

        2. Pedigree-Pete
          Thumb Up

          Inappropriate calls across the office....

          At one time we had an internal sales team where only 1 spoke only English. The others were French, Russian and Spanish.

          We had a customer who's since become a great friend. He liked to call the new Russian Internal sales lady to contact his sales account manager and announce himself as Ivor Biggin or Chris Peacock. Caused great hoots from the native English speakers when she announced him across the office and accelerated her English language education. PP :) Win, win.

          1. Chairman of the Bored

            Re: Inappropriate calls across the office....

            You should introduce her to Mr. Wayne Kerr.

            1. terrythetech

              Re: Inappropriate calls across the office....

              Ahem -

              Purveyor of fine electronic test gear

              1. Chairman of the Bored

                Re: Inappropriate calls across the office....

                Nice specs on Wayne Kerr's LCR meter. Seems that he is tossing out some good stuff.

                I served with a guy named Richard "Dick" Holden. Wonder how he is doing... afraid to Google it from work, though

    3. ivan5

      I think that Telefunken 'borrowed' the idea from the work of Tom Cranston and Fred Longstaff, both Canadiab engineers of the DATAR project in 1949. Their invention was the farther of all trackballs using a 4" ball. As far as I am concerned all computer mice are nothing more than an upside down trackball. I first used one in the mid 50s at a radar site for very accurate positioning on the CRT display overlays.

      1. Chairman of the Bored

        Wait, you had 4" balls?

        Daaaaamn! I will take back everything I ever said about Air Defense Artillery units...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The Canadian's in turn "borrowed" the idea of the roller ball from the British. DATAR was an attempt to build a digital version of a naval command and control system. The original analog computer system (called CDS) was developed by a British team at AWE. Ralph Benjamin invented the idea of a roller ball to allow operators to track the radar targets as he was dissatisfied with using joysticks (see

        PS: They built two prototypes of CDS which were shown to various allies. One was later given to the Americans, and was the inspiration for future USA command and control systems including EDS and SAGE.

  3. Robigus

    Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

    "Silicon Valley is much more Gwyneth Paltrow than it is Ayn Rand"

    For that, have an early beer.

    1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: "range"?

      Thank you! I will.

    2. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

      "Silicon Valley is much more Gwyneth Paltrow than it is Ayn Rand"

      Either option is pretty horrific.

      1. Flakk

        Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

        Maybe, but if Silicon Valley started out as Gwyneth rather than Ayn, we'd still be using punch cards. Now granted, they'd be very nice punch cards perfumed with $200/oz essential oils, but they'd be punch cards nonetheless.

        1. bombastic bob Silver badge

          Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

          I was looking at it from a more political perspective, and did a bit of research, and confirmed that the comparison was, in fact, pretty good.

          I'd prefer that it was Ayn Rand. Instead, we got a bunch of lefties and/or snowflakes with TOO MUCH MONEY AND INFLUENCE, pretending they "care" but in fact, they're in it FOR THE MONEY.

          (I'd be in it for the money, too, but I'd be honest about it, and "not do evil")

          1. Glen 1

            Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

            >I'd prefer that it was Ayn Rand

            Would you kindly become a communist.

            According to FREEEDOM there is no such thing as too much money (30's Germany amirite?), or are you some lefty liberal who would take their money (tax) and spend it on something like universal healthcare.


            1. #define INFINITY -1

              @Glen 1 Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

              "According to FREEEDOM ..."

              I'd paraphrase as 'according to CAPITTALISSM'. In fact a sliding scale on tax does suggest that too much money is a thing. Only, that sliding scale stops somewhere above two or three orders of magnitude what I earn...

              Reasons for this? Lobby capital maybe?

              1. Glen 1

                Re: @Glen 1 Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

                > does suggest that too much money is a thing

                I was lampooning Bob's typical style.

                I know there is such a thing as too much money, that's why I referenced 30s Germany. (printing more notes to pay war reparations resulting in hyperinflation) then followed it up with a troll tag.

                Even getting in a dig about universal healthcare, which many civilised countries consider it a part of what makes them civilised in the first place.

        2. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Fighting the slide towards hagiography.

          And if it had started as Ayn Rand then it wouldnt have got into the government (tax payer) funded labs let alone out.

  4. Semtex451

    "Theranos did demos too, which were as fake as SRI's"

    Remind me what happened to MagicLeap..

    1. Aladdin Sane

      I read that as Thanos.

  5. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    In one aspect, two-way hyperlinks, what Engelbart showed was superior to the web we have today.

    Indeed but one-way hyperlinks are what make the web possible (this is the concept of "worse is better"). Two-way hyperlinks can only be kept alive in a closely controlled system where source and target work closely together. Do you really want to notify everyone linking to your blog whenever you shuffle some text around?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Do you really want to notify everyone linking to your blog whenever you shuffle some text around?

      Never mind a blog, imagine what a link to FB would do to your sanity.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Double hyperlinks

        No thanks. The benefit with a unidirectional hyperlink is that I don't have to control or know the person who controls the other end of that link, and I can link to things that are relevant to whatever I'm saying without having to worry about whether what I'm saying is relevant to them. Worse still, I could see this as the cause of an annoying amount of spam by people wanting to link to my page so I'll link back to them, which I'd have to run through because somewhere there would be one with useful content. Essentially, double-ended links would try to turn us all into a search engine, and I'd rather not do that.

        1. Nick Gibbins

          Re: Double hyperlinks

          The benefit of first class links (the term of art for hypertext links that are stored and manipulated separately from the documents they link) is that you don't need to control the document that exists at *either* end of the link. This means that you can create links that only you can see (a set of private annotations on documents) or choose to publish them (which of course doesn't mean that everyone needs to choose to see them).

          Bidirectional links (and more complex links, like n-ary links with more than one source or destination) follow fairly easily once you have first class links.

    2. Nick Gibbins

      "one-way hyperlinks are what make the web possible (this is the concept of "worse is better")"

      I disagree; what makes the Web possible is links that are allowed to break, an orthogonal issue to bidirectionality (or indeed to the first class/embedded link dichotomy).

      There have been systems which have had first class links (stored and manipulated separately from the documents they link) which have tried to enforce link integrity. Nelson claimed to be able to do it in Xanadu, but was never able to explain exactly how[1]. Hyper-G - the Great White Also-Ran of the hypertext world - tried to enforce link integrity using something that with modern eyes looks rather like a distributed hash table. Interesting, but fundamentally not as scalable as Not Giving A Damn like the Web does. No doubt, if it were reinvented now, it would use something blockchain-shaped.

      On the other hand, there have been systems with first class (and bidirectional) links that didn't care about link integrity - Microcosm being one such.

      TimBL's decision to have the Web use embedded unidirectional links that would be allowed to break was, in retrospect, a sensible decision - but it's the breaking bit that mattered, not the embedded/unidirectional bit.

      [1] source: I directly asked him about this twenty years ago when I was doing my PhD on matters related to distributed hypermedia systems

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I went to reply properly to this article of moans but realised it wasn't worth the effort.

    Go read the Wired articles instead of this moan.

    1. Nick Gibbins

      Orlowski seems never to have found a party that he didn't want to spoil. He's really rather tiresome.

  7. FBee

    What the Dormouse Said - a real trip

    Literally - LSD and the birth of the Modern computer Age. A trippy hallucinogenic tale of fuzzy warm counter cultural mores meets cold logic computer chips. T'was no tale, forsooth. Feed Your Head indeed...

  8. Peter X

    Yeah but... skinless bananas?!

    He did invent the skinless banana so you can never take that away from him!

    The only snag with that one (aside from their, afaik, non-availability) is that the comedy potential is reduced. And also, banana skin has always been pretty user friendly; the obvious candidate for a skinless fruit is an orange... and I believe you can actually purchase those skinless (in a plastic container).

    So I guess I have to concur... yep, the guy's an idiot! ;-)

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    The thing you'll almost never see (unless MS "discovers" it again)

    Is making anything (and I mean nearly anything) clickable.

    I've only see that on the OS's built to support the later languages of Wirth (Oberon for example).

  10. Christian Berger

    What was actually more impressive back then

    was GRAIL.

    It was a pen only system you could program rather efficiently by only using a pen and a screen.

  11. illuminatus

    A product of the time

    What you also have to consider is that Englebart was working on the West Coast. He'd fought in WWII, and like many of those veterans wanted to see some profound changes in the world afterwards. He was just one of a whole bunch of people who were very much of that progressive West Coast wave, many of whom had read what Bush had to say back in 1945 and thought the idea of augmentation was a good starting point. Lots of the libertarian aspects of the early web were born in that environment, which was like a counterweight to what was going on in places like MIT. Remember also that Taylor has discussed some the networking components via the likes Donald Davies at NPL in the UK, among many others. He wasn't alone in not seeing the path of increasing miniaturisation and personalisation, just look at 2001 from the year after, for example. And that's without thinking about the hypermedia stuff that people like Ted Nelson were doing. There were a lot of ideas flowing around that could be synthesised in new and interesting ways.

    But these were academic projects, not commercial for the most part, so collaboration and knowledge sharing was very much tot he fore

    Yes, the demo was constructed a bit, but things *were* primitive. Intel's 4004 processor was over two years in the future, and the first ARPANet link was still around a year away. Like James Burke says in Connections, the path of progress is not simple and linear, It's a complex nexus of interlinking influences and discussions, with people repurposing things for novel and unexpected uses. This demo was hugely important for many reasons, andI think some of those aims were laudable. The fact is that every event has unintended consequences, good and bad, so why should this be any different?

    1. #define INFINITY -1

      @illuminatus Re: A product of the time

      What you might be missing is the comparison to Tesla and Edison. Popular culture has it that USA invented computers, just like Edison invented 'electricity'.

      In other words, marketing, lobbying and brashness are the pillar of US 'ingenuity'.

      BTW I'm not a Brit.

  12. aziiff

    Are you nuts?

    The computer's were at menlo park? Doesn't that make this a demo of cloud computing too? It hardly reduces the Demo. It's still the most impressive thing I have ever seen. So far ahead of it's time it's like time travel. Uncanny.

  13. Raedwald Bretwalda

    SRI you say? It gets *much worse*:

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  14. A. Coatsworth Silver badge

    Silicon Valley is much more Gwyneth Paltrow than it is Ayn Rand

    Can I have that etched on a baseball bat, to whack in the head those fools who jump into every new Silly-con Valley hype train?

  15. Jim 59

    Article seems a bit small minded, it's main thrust being that somebody, at some point, might have got more credit than they deserved. An uncharitable view taken for its own sake. And a small thing even if true.

    Personally I found the demo interesting, thanks. It is hard to think, now, that there was a time when just editing a file, in memory, and on a screen, was huge. But it was.

    On the other hand, Silicon Valley is indeed becoming increasingly annoying. Please continue to point that out.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      [its] main thrust being that somebody, at some point, might have got more credit than they deserved

      I don't subscribe to that interpretation. I think Andrew is spot-on in this one. "Two-point" O'Reilly and that sort are eager to promote mysticism and a cult of individual genius and foresight which is historically inaccurate, an impediment to thinking critically about the process of technological development, and an insult to others who contributed to that process.

      It's debatable how much of this is mercenary and calculating, and how much simply an expression of high-tech cultural foolishness. But it is not good, and it's useful to have it challenged. That's neither uncharitable (quite the opposite) nor small.

      Engelbart's demo was interesting. Many people found it impressive, then and since. There's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is in casting it as a miracle and Engelbart as a saint, and building yet another Silicon Valley cult of personality around him. The MotD is already famous; what we need is critical reflection on it, not more vapid celebration.

  16. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

    Not just me then

    Les Earnest is 88 next week, and still going strong. Here's a post he made to Dave Farber's mailing list on Wednesday:


    The stories cited, especially the one about my old friend Doug Engelbart, are total bullshit. The Engelbart myth and his resulting receipt of the ACM Turing award came out of his 1968 [1988? - ed] talk in San Francisco, where a seriously ignorant journalist in the audience named Steven Levy jumped to the erroneous conclusion that Doug had invented all the stuff he was showing even though most of it went back as much as 20 years. Another journalist, John Markoff, then repeated that baloney in the New York Times, which by the rules of journalism made it solid history.

    I know all that because I helped create some of the earlier technology, working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory beginning in 1956, then in its Mitre Corporation spinoff beginning in 1958. MIT's Whirlwind computer had been developed before I got there but I got to play with it and also with the TX-0 and TX-2 computers, all of which which had good text editors from their beginnings in the1950s. In summary, all of the published histories about text editing are fantasies, like most computer history shown in public media, web sites, and the Computer History Museum. The latter is evidently not interested in telling the truth even though I have been trying to bribe them with big donations since I became a founding member, following my donations to its predecessor, the Digital Computer Museum in Boston.

    One thing that Doug Engelbart did invent was the mouse, with some help from his colleague, Bill English, but it was not a big step forward. Many of us had been moving display cursors around for years using Light Guns, a pistol-sized optical sensor with a trigger that could be aimed at optical elements on the screen. A smaller and lighter version was then developed called the light pen, which I used a lot in my graduate research, developing the first cursive handwriting recognizer including the first spelling checker, which won me a free trip to Europe in 1962 to present it at the IFIP Congress in Munich.

    The mouse created no new capability but it did have two advantages over the light pen:

    - It was cheaper, and

    - It could be moved on a flat horizontal surface instead of having to reach to the screen.

    However, with widespread use of pocket computers coming into play, the mouse is now slowly dying, just like Doug did.

    Lester D Earnest



    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not just me then

      Can I trade you one false history for another? There is a catch, and you might find the prevalent anarchy here a bit of an adjustment.

    2. Trixr

      Re: Not just me then

      Ah, Stephen Levy, author of the hagiographic Hackers.

      Personally I wish he'd do a Neal Stephenson and switch to writing fiction rather than confusing the public with his "journalism". Then again, he hasn't published for a while, so maybe he's done.

      I don't mind a bit of story-telling, but not that rah-rah-rah kind of thing where a journalist seems to believe everything that comes out of someone's mouth.

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