‘The Mother Of All Demos’ Turns 40

It’s been exactly 40 years since a man, one of the greatest visionaries in the world of computing, showed a crowd things that they really, really didn’t understand. The visionary showed things you could do with a computer that we can still barely do today. He was the first to show windows, a mouse, video conferencing, document collaboration, email, instant messaging, hypertext linking, and so much more. Yes, yesterday was the 40th anniversary of what would become known as The Mother Of All Demos. Please pay your respects.

Douglas Engelbart was a man way ahead of his time – a cliché, I know, but in this case it’s simple truth. The audience during the legendary demonstration consisted of the cream of the crop of the American compute science world, and even they had absolutely no idea what they had just seen – it went completely over their heads. “[Engelbart] was one of the very few people very early on who were able to understand not only that computers could do a lot of things that were very familiar,” as Alan Kay, legend in his own right, explains, “but that there was something new about computers that allow us to think in a very different way – in a stronger way.”

Those that witnessed the demonstration also believe that the functionality of the oN-Line System (NLS), as Engelbart’s environment was called, has yet to be realised in modern-day computing. “We’re looking back at this with a kind of nostalgia, asking what this magician did for us. But ask yourself this: What do we really have today?” Andries van Dam, a professor who attended the demo, wonders, “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. We can do a lot of individual things that were done with NLS and we can do them with more functionality… But they don’t work together. They don’t play nice together. And most of the time, what you’ve got is an import/export capability that serves as a lowest common denominator.”

According to Van Dam, NLS was about so much more than GUIs of today. “Everything inter-operated in this super rich environment. And if you look at the demo carefully, it’s about modifying, it’s about studying, it’s about being really analytical, and reflecting about what’s happening.”

Alan Kay agrees with Van Dam. “You may have noticed after watching the demo that [NLS’s] response time is a just a little bit better than we have today,” Kay argues.

Personally, I love the bigger point that both Van Dam and Kay put forth in the Register article. As El Reg summarises so painfully accurate: “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.”

Whenever I hear someone refer to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs as computer visionaries, I cringe. Gates and Jobs are lucky if they may kiss the ground Engelbart walked on.


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