Doug Engelbart’s country childhood: how swinging across a stream turned into swinging across a hyperlink

Douglas Engelbart in his office at SRI, 11 Feb 2009
Douglas Engelbart in his office at SRI, 11 Feb 2009. Photo: Sue Thomas

For quite a while I’ve been fascinated by the life and works of Doug Engelbart, who died last week aged 88. I’m no engineer and can’t begin to pretend to understand his technical achievements, but his cultural and creative influences on the technology world are immense.

I got to meet him in February 2009 when his close friends the computer pioneer Ted Nelson and Marlene Mallicoat kindly arranged for me to interview him.  Doug was pretty much retired and seldom gave interviews so they had generously provided me with a fantastic opportunity. Here’s a brief excerpt from Technobiophilia describing our meeting at Stanford Research Institute:

His office is a pleasant and compact inner sanctum. It had been difficult to obtain a meeting with him but mutual friends had introduced us and I was very grateful for the chance to visit. At the age of eighty-four he looked frail but he pulled a table into place for us all to sit around – his wife, his secretary, and me. As we settled down to talk, the man who is well-known for his modesty was bemused as to why I wanted to hear about his relationship with nature.  After all, most people come to talk about his engineering achievements. But I was there because I wanted to find out whether nature had inspired his thinking at any point, either consciously or perhaps even subconsciously. He gave me a kind, rather patient, smile, so I plunged in and asked about his childhood. He told me he was born in 1925 in Portland, Oregon, and lived in a suburban neighbourhood until his family moved further out of town when he was nine.  ‘It was a beautiful place on a winding road.  You came across the creek on a little bridge and the creek went straight onto our property.  It was just idyllic for a little kid.’ But his father died and his mother got a job in Portland which involved walking a mile and a half to the bus stop every day, so Doug had to learn how to help care for his smaller siblings.  ‘But we didn’t feel like we were suffering.  Part of the reason for that was living out in that beautiful countryside.’ It was there, in a nearby ravine with a creek running through it, that he played a game which, from a cognitive perspective, may have helped him think through problems in a way which would later prove very useful in his engineering career.  He would draw threads from old burlap sacks, re-twist them in multiple strands, then knot the resulting rope into a swing to carry him back and forth across the stream below. Thirty years later he invented the hyperlink, which has a very similar function, that is to say it is a twist of code swinging data from one point to another.  For those unfamiliar with the term ‘hyperlink’, it is the digital text on a web page, traditionally blue and often italicised or underlined, that you click on to go to another part of the page or to a new page. The next time you click on a link, pause to remember that it was invented by  the man who as a child spent many hours making ropes to swing him from one side of a creek to another. After all, as Doug Engelbart told me that day, the hyperlink is all about ‘being able to find any given object in another document and just go there’.

I also wrote about him in my 2004 book Hello World: travels in virtuality. At that time  I was absorbed by his 1968 Demo videos because they seemed to offer an intriguing insight into the unconscious working of the programmer’s mind.  This was the first public outing of the computer mouse and the hyperlink, both invented by Doug. I wrote:

To watch Engelbart’s movie now, across that very network which has expanded beyond belief, is a thrilling moment. But it’s also an opportunity to scrutinise the typist in action. Engelbart and his team had set up an intimate and sophisticated demonstration, with the presenters at their consoles and projectors showing the results of their keystrokes as they appeared on a magnified screen. On the video, both can be viewed simultaneously, and so we are able to be voyeurs and peek in on Engelbart’s facial expressions as he talks and types. For the most part, he is conscious of the audience and produces a smooth presentation but every now and then the computer claims all of his attention and private smiles and frowns and queries flow over his features as he engages wholly with the system, muttering to himself, talking to the machine, until returning to the role of presenter once more. At those moments he seems unaware that he has been lost to his audience for a few seconds, as if he were taken by a petit mal seizure then returned to normal consciousness without even realising he’s been gone. And as he talks through his demonstration the computer accompanies him with a music of its own. The early machines were much noisier than we are used to today, and his commentary runs alongside a range of system vocalisations including the low beeps, whines, and buzzings which together create the esoteric chamber music of the programmer.

My personal favourite is Clip 3 on the official Stanford site but there’s an excerpt with just the mouse section available on YouTube too.

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