Fifty years ago, in 1968, computers were big mainframe systems that were programmed using large decks of punch cards. All output came out of a printer. There were no computer displays yet, just rows of blinking light bulbs that were call a “monitor.” All programs were run as batch jobs, one at a time. There were no windows, no multi-tasking, no interactive computing as we know it today.
On December 8, 1968 a computer engineer named Doug Engelbart made a presentation to a room full of 1000 people. Some of the concepts he demonstrated would not appear commercially for another 20 years.
- Networking – His computer was connected by specially run cables to other computers 30 miles away. Nothing like this had ever been done before. The next year, in 1969, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would unveil the ARPAnet, which was the precursor of what we now call the Internet.
- The Mouse – Engelbart and another engineer, Bill English created a new wheeled pointing device that they called “the mouse.” Englebart used the mouse in his presentation.
- The Display or Monitor – The words they typed into the computer were displayed on a projection screen for the first time.
- Collaboration – Engelbart demonstrated how two or more people connected by networked computers could work together on the same project over a great distance.
- Word Processing – Engelbart demonstrated typing words and correcting errors using a new feature – the DELETE key.
Many of these concepts were unappreciated at the time. Main-frame computers were seen as nothing more than very large calculators used for solving mathematical problems. The idea that an individual would have their own computer was an idea that seemed far-fetched. Even other computer scientists had trouble conceiving of a world where everyone would be linked to a huge interconnected network, and would use them to communicate, share information, and even do prosaic tasks like word-processing. For crying out loud, there were typewriters aplenty, weren’t there? Email would not be invented for three more years, until 1971, as part of the ARPAnet program. The first kit-built personal computer, the Altair 8080, would not appear until 1975. The first Apple computer kits were sold in 1976. CRT displays had been around since War War II radar screens, and the invention of television. But Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak figured out how to connect their computer to a TV set to use as a display. The first IBM PC was released in 1981. The first commercial use of the computer mouse came in 1981 on the Xerox 8010, and later on the Apple Lisa in 1983. Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web (www) protocol at CERN in 1989. He created the first web server and web browser in 1990. The first commercial uses of the Internet occured in 1989 and 1990. In 1992, Marc Andreessen developed the Mosaic web browser, later named Netscape, which was released in 1993 and became the first commercially successful web browser.
All of these wonders were predicted and demonstrated in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his presentation. Some of us have been alive long enough to have witnessed the growth of computers and the Internet first-hand. But many of you have only know a world where all of these things were right at your fingertips. It is amazing to me to consider how far we have come in such a short time.