How Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Mother of All Demos’ changed the face of modern computing 50 years ago

How Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Mother of All Demos’ changed the face of modern computing 50 years ago

The computer mouse was first invented by Douglas Engelbart in the 1960s, then a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute.

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Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse, seen at a Stanford event in 2008. (Image credit: Stanford University)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos”, presented by Douglas Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), known for creating the computer mouse. On December 9, 1968,  Engelbart first introduced the concept during a session of the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, which was attended by 1,000 computer professionals.

In 1963, Douglas Engelbart began to receive funding for his own research laboratory, a lab he named the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. Engelbart created the first prototype of the computer mouse in 1963. But it was Bill English, a colleague of Engelbart at the Standford Research Institute, who constructed the first prototype of the mouse using Engelbart’s sketches. The first computer mouse looked like a cubic device with two rolling discs called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system”. Unlike today’s computer mouse made of hard plastic, the first mouse had a wooden shell.

How Douglas Engelbart predicted the future in 1968

In a presentation at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Engelbart and his team of 17 researchers gave a demonstration of a new computing platform called the on-Line System (NLS). The NLS came with the computer mouse, a keyboard, a monitor, and a five-key “chored” key set for operators to input commands.  For the first time, Engelbart showed what it would be like using a computer. But Engelbart went beyond and demonstrated those features that are still very much part of a modern computer. He also introduced the world to video conferencing, which involves two-persons sitting at different sites, communicating with each other over a network.

To demonstrate the feature, the ARC team connected Engelbart’s NLS terminal on the stage to the SDS-940 computer at ARC in Menlo Park. With the help of a video projector, a crowd of 1000 people was able to see what was on Engelbart’s screen. ARC members were on the other side connected virtually through video and audio. We are talking about the 1960s, when the internet was not even around.


And if that was not enough. Engelbart also introduced on-screen windows, hypertext, graphics, file linking, revision control, and even word processing. All these interactions are standard across the modern day computer system.

“The research program that I am going to describe to you is quickly characterizable by saying. If in your in office, you, as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly …responsive to every action you have. How much value could you drive from that? This basically characterizes what we’ve been pursuing for many years,” said Engelbart.

The evolution of the computer mouse

Things got interesting when Xerox Corporation started experimenting with the computer mouse in the 1970s. The breakthrough came in 1981 with the introduction of the Xerox Star computer. The mouse worked with the Xerox Star’s interface, but the unit cost $17,000.

But it wasn’t until Apple that made the computer mouse mainstream. Apple Computer Company (now Apple Inc), founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976, shipped the Lisa computer system with a mouse that featured a trackball and used a single, horizontal button. Jobs got the idea to make a computer with a graphical user interface and a mouse after watching the Alto workstation during two visits at the Xerox PARC research center in Palo Alto in 1979. Although the Lisa wasn’t a commercial success, the mouse became the default part in every computer Apple released since then.

The popularity of the mouse rose further with the launch of Macintosh in 1984.  While many believe that Steve Jobs stole the idea of a graphical user interface and a mouse from Xerox, but the truth is that he paid them 100,000 shares of Apple at $10 a piece (Apple went public the following year), Walter Isaacson writes in “Steve Jobs”.

Until the 1980s, the computer mouse had wires and require line-in-sight with a base station to work. In 1991, Logitech surprised many when it released the first ever wireless computer mouse. Called the “Cordless Mouseman”, it was the first mouse made that used radio frequency.

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It’s true that touch screens and gestures have become new interfaces to interact with computers and smartphones, despite that the mouse is still needed to operate the desktop and laptop. It would be unthinkable to imagine a computer without a mouse and that hasn’t changed ever since Douglas Engelbart debuted the concept in 1968. Engelbart may have succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and left the world in 2013, but his legacy as the inventor of the computer mouse lives on.