EXACTLY 50 YEARS ago, without any fanfare, unnoticed by most, unrecognized even by many who were right there in the room, the future arrived. It was December 9 1968, a Monday. At the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Douglas C Engelbart gave a presentation of a revolutionary approach to computing, which demonstrated for the first time a whole complex of concepts fundamental to computing as we know it today — a windowed interface with which you interact using a keyboard and mouse, direct on–screen text editing, copy and paste, and much more.

Bear in mind that at the time, a computer filled a room and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the usual way to interact with it was to have a technician feed it punchcards or load spools of paper tape. Engelbart’s demo was run off a room–sized, time–sharing computer 30 miles away over a leased line link–up, but it wasn’t the computer he was demonstrating. It was interactive computing, a radical new way of using a computer, in contrast to the standard number–crunching.

The presentation is now known as “the mother of all demos.” It was given that name in a book by tech journalist Steven Levy published in 1994; the common Middle Eastern “mother of all…” idiom had become current in the West when Saddam Hussein threatened “the mother of all battles” in a speech during the first Gulf War in 1991. The book was titled Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. In it, Levy made the connection between Engelbart’s demo and the way the Mac worked. It was, in numerous tangible ways, the prototype of the Macintosh.


Not that Engelbart’s ideas sprang out of thin air: his entire career had been inspired by the ideas of Vannevar Bush, who publishedscientists in the application of science to warfare.” Looking forward to when the fighting has ceased, “[Bush] urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.”

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