Technology has changed our world so much in the last 100 years that it’s a bit of a cliché to say it. My grandparents grew up in Bodie, California, where three generations of Dolans, McDonnells and Bells lived for several decades. People who visit the mining ghost town of Bodie, a California State Park, today will see a glimpse of the difficult conditions in that beautiful and desolate place. My family were mechanics, miners, engineers, and assayers. Most of them worked on the technology of mining.
A few years ago, my grandmother gave me her dad’s Trautwine Engineering manual. Leafing through this little tome, you get a feeling for the level of engineering and technology of the day. It’s signed inside by my great-grandfather, “Harry F. Dolan, Bodie, CA. Green Creek Power Plant, Feb. 1., 1913.”
A little over 50 years later, we would be taking men to the moon, and using everyday technology that would have been fantasy in my great-grandfather’s day. I was a small child and marveled, as all kids did then, at the space program and the astronauts.
But nobody around me in my childhood knew what was going on, not too far away, in an area that would become known as Silicon Valley. A small group of researchers were working on computers and thinking about what might be possible with them someday. Their ideas continue to directly shape computing and communications technology today. They built a system demonstrating their ideas, and on December 9th, 1968, fifty years ago today, they demonstrated the system in what has become known as The Mother of All Demos.
In the late ‘60’s, there were plenty of visionaries talking about what computers and technology would do in the future. Some of them had pretty good ideas, and some of them were right about what might happen. But Doug Englebart and his colleagues built something and showed us.
The demonstration of the system was itself a wonder of the time. The computers were down in Menlo Park at SRI (Stanford Research Institute), and a half-dozen people were working to keep the demonstration working. There are times when Engelbart pauses the demonstration to describe what’s happening and some detail about how it’s working, and we know now that he was stalling for time while his team re-establish the connection to the computers, or otherwise fix some problem while Engelbart filled time.
It is worth taking a moment to think about what computer technology was like and what it meant to create this system and demonstrate it before a live audience. This was five years before Bob Metcalf invented Ethernet, and six years before Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf released the original spec for TCP/IP, the foundation technology that today we call the internet.
The system that Doug Englebart demonstrated in 1968 started as an advanced computing project funded by ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The ideas presented would become the basis for new ways of interacting with computers.
The original video of the Mother of All Demos has been assembled into a set of three videos, about 30 minutes each, by the Doug Engelbart Institute. They are viewable on YouTube:
For more information about Doug Engelbart, and the Mother of All Demos, the Doug Engelbart Institute is a fantastic resource.
If you are interested in more about the history of Silicon Valley and modern computing, I recommend Fire in the Valley, by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger. They recently released an updated Third Edition. It’s my favorite history of Silicon Valley and computing.