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  • Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution and the Origins of Personal Computing
  • Mike Mosher
Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution and the Origins of Personal Computing by Thierry Bardini. Stanford Univ. Press, Palo Alto, CA, U.S.A., 2001. 312 pp., illus. $22.95. Paper. ISBN: 0-8047-3871-8.

Many artists working with computers have drifted in and out of Silicon Valley's computer industry in the past two or more decades, and many have influenced the tools and software in one way or another, whether through icon design or participation in user testing. This cohort has sought to add gracefulness to the service of productivity and to promote, through technology, elegant visual, audial and behavioral solutions. These artist-designers (which include myself) always appreciate a good history of the early days of the computer-human interface field. Thierry Bardini provides one in his book on Douglas Engelbart.

Engelbart was born 1925 in Oregon and served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946 before returning to attend Oregon State University. He then obtained a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was exposed to the early days of computers, realizing that he did not feel drawn towards a career in academia. He briefly had his own consulting company, then went to work for Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1957. At SRI, Engelbart's Augmentation of Human Intellect Project explored the technical and social aspects of computing. Not only did he see this as a way to improve human capability, but as an exploration of the philosophy of language and the body.

Engelbart is known for many technical innovations that contemporary computer users take for granted: the outline processor, the windowed user interface, the mouse, and one with which his name has not generally been associated—electronic mail. He also explored some technologies that have not yet blossomed into common use, as when he came to advocate a chording keyset (he saw this as superior to the conventional, hegemonic "QWERTY" keyboard).

Engelbart's invention of the mouse built upon the 1950s light pen as well as Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad (Sutherland's 1963 Ph.D. thesis project). The mouse finally appeared on a successful commercial product, the 1984 Apple Macintosh. Work applying Fitt's Law soon established the relation between distance and size of an onscreen target, when using hand movement for pointing at it. I remember a presentation by the man who was then Apple's interface evangelist, Bruce Tognazzini (whose name appears mangled in this book), on Fitt's Law and the Mac mouse at SIGGRAPH '89.

Bootstrapping is also valuable for its glimpse into the political and somewhat Machiavellian world of government research funding. Engelbart's work was a rival to that of J.R. Licklider, whose projects in artificial intelligence sought "man/computer symbiosis" rather than mere augmentation. The well-placed Licklider was the director of the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency Information Processing Technology Office (ARPA-IPTO) in 1962. After 1967, Licklider's office funded Engelbart's projects, including one called "H-LAM/ T Sys" (Human Using Language, Artifact Methodology), in which he was trained.

Like the hypertext visionary Ted Nelson, Engelbart's thought was influenced by Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" essay. Engelbart's NLS (which stood for "oN Line System"), at SRI in the 1960s, was established for group communication and collaboration employing natural language links. His influential demos at the ACM/IEEE Computer Society Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in December 1968 were videotaped by Stewart Brand, who had just edited the Whole Earth Catalog. Engelbart had a profound influence on the "baby boomer" generation of computer scientists and theorists, which included Nelson, Larry Tesler, Ivan Sutherland, Alan Kay and Brenda Laurel. In a picture taken around 1970, Engelbart is, in his mid-forties, a handsome presence with dark eyebrows, sporting longish silver hair like a southern senator, the white shirts and ties of the 1960s put aside for turtleneck sweaters. The reader is treated to rarely published images of Engelbart's various team presentations and experiments, like a knee-controlled mouse rigged up (and here photographed) under the table...


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