This Forgotten Visionary Gave Us Modern Computing and Got Nothing in Return

Douglas Engelbart at home in 1997 with the first computer mouse he invented, along with his actual mouse. Photo: John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Before his lab was shut down, before he lost all of his funding and before his dilapidated Silicon Valley home was surrounded by the billionaires who got rich off of his ideas, Douglas Engelbart gave what is now known as the “Mother of all demos.”

The year was 1968, and in 90 minutes the Stanford-based researcher unveiled such fanciful concepts as video conferencing, a graphical user interface, a Powerpoint-precursor, hyperlinks, real-time text editing, and Windows-style computing. He navigated through each of these by using a box on wheels to move an on-screen cursor he called the “X-Y position indicator for a display system,” which he’d nicknamed “the mouse.” When Engelbart’s presentation ended, he received a standing ovation from 1,000 computer scientists whose minds had been completely blown.

At a time when computers were hulking machines that crunched numbers fed to them on punchcards, Engelbart’s vision was revolutionary. As his contemporaries worked to make computers smarter, he wondered how they could be more useful, and while his ideas were eaten up by the pocket-protector crowd, they didn’t catch on where it mattered until it was far too late.

The contracts Engelbart anticipated never came. As his funding dried up, his researchers found better jobs and inadvertently made him easier to overlook by taking his signature invention, the mouse, to Xerox PARC. Before long, Engelbart was toiling away under oppressive office lights in a cubicle at a now-defunct Cupertino time-sharing company. A block away, the model of computing that he designed was being brought to life at Apple.

People in the industry were aware of Engelbart and his contributions, but he was ignored, a friend said, because “his ideas made them uncomfortable.”

“I was sent to Siberia,” Engelbart told The Mercury News in 1999.

On the occasions when he was allowed into the Valley’s corridors of power, Engelbart was never one to fawn. In the early ’80s, Steve Jobs proudly showed off his personal computer to the man who had invented many of its features. Engelbart easily found reason to complain, as the Macintosh lacked the key part of his vision — networking.

“I said, ‘It is terribly limited. It has no access to anyone else’s documents, to email, to common repositories of information,’” he said. Without the ability to work collaboratively over a network, the Mac was equivalent to an “exotic office without a telephone or door,” he told Jobs.

Engelbart’s mouse prototype, reproduced by designer Bill English from Engelbart’s sketches. Photo: SRI International

It was that stubborn adherence to his ideals that ultimately led Engelbart to be ostracized and miss out on the recognition he deserved. It came eventually, but the money never followed. A few years after the internet proved him right about the importance of networking personal computers, Engelbart won a handful of prestigious tech awards. But for two decades after that, he struggled to get funding and died in 2013 with work that he considered unfinished.

According his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, that unfinished business even extended to his modest home near Stanford University, purchased in 1968, which laid in disrepair for years after a botched remodel left pervasive damage he could never afford to fix. “Thick metal cables bolted to the studs stretched across the living room to hold up the walls, and some parts of the house could not be used,” a friend of his told the paper.

Those who knew Engelbart say his excommunication from Silicon Valley deprived the world of ideas that we can’t even imagine. As his friend and fellow tech pioneer Ted Nelson said while eulogizing Engelbart, “Just as we can only guess what John Kennedy might have done, we can only guess what Doug Engelbart might have done had he not been cut down in his prime.”

Meet the Forgotten Visionary Behind the Computer Mouse