Doug Engelbart in his ARC office
Douglas C. Engelbart (1925–2013) was an American inventor, designer, and engineer. Born in Portland, Oregon, he was the middle of three children. He was called to serve in the army halfway through his undergraduate studies, and spent 2 years as a radar technician in the Philippines. That is where, as a radar operator, he discovered computers, and their potential for augmentation.
He read about Vaneever Bush – an inventor and the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during WWII. His work on the Memex machine inspired Engelbart to the possibilities of augmentative technology, especially in the context of the personal computer.
While Engelbart was influenced by Vannevar Bush, and the Bell labs community at large, the turning point in that moment was the shift from augmentative technology and the augmented self.
For all his rich work in the field, Engelbart is mostly known to have invented the mouse, but his infamous 1968 presentation, commonly known as the ‘Mother of All Demos’ included a lot of the tools we take for granted today – such as video conferencing and Google Docs style editing, and some we have yet to invent–such as the ability to collaborate with two cursors in real-time.
But it is not the specific tools that Engelbart created which make him, and the NLS an interesting focal point. It is his well-documented thinking, and the universality of the concepts outlined within. The value of language, metaphors, feeling cognitively comfortable and creative within an intellectual environment are all of the same goals the field of design is pursuing today.
It is hard to overstress the vision Engelabrt had for the field, citing Bret Victor’s obituary, that a misguided focus on the fact that Engelbart supposedly only invented the mouse is “as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil.”
Engelbart is systematic in his analysis of the processes of augmentation, and is basing his framework on four classes which he calls the Augmentation Means:
1 Artifacts — physical objects designed to provide for human comfort for the manipulation of things or materials and for the manipulation of symbols
Hardware, tools, and artifacts which manipulate the physical environment. Helping with strenuous, or dangerous activities.
2 Language — the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into the concepts that his mind uses to model that world and the symbols that he attaches to those concepts
The mental models we write and call for when we navigate the world around us, including the artifacts that come into our lives.
3 Methodology — the methods procedures strategies with which an individual organizes his problem-solving activity
The processes, patterns, and protocols we put in place – both informally or otherwise – to create an implicit or formal order.
4 Training — the conditioning needed by the human being to bring his skills in using means and to the point where they are operationally effective
Individual’s ability to engage with and learn new principles. This could be considered controversial today, as design for frictionless usability, and intuitiveness.