The Electronic Labyrinth

Douglas Engelbart

In the late 1940s, Douglas Engelbart was stationed in the Philippines when he read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" in a Red Cross library. He became an early believer in Bush's idea of a machine that would aid human cognition. Later, he worked at Ames aeronautical lab, and developed the idea that would form the basis of today's computer interfaces.

In the early 1960s, Engelbart began the Augmentation Research Centre (ARC), a development environment at the Stanford Research Institute. Here, he and his colleagues (William K. English and John F. Rulifson) created the On-Line System (NLS), the world's first implementation of what was to be called hypertext. Yet this was only a small part of what ARC was about. As he states in "Working Together," Engelbart was particularity concerned with "asynchronous collaboration among teams distributed geographically" (245). This endeavour is part of the study of Computer Supported Co-operative Work (CSCW); software which supports this goal is often called groupware.

"Augmentation not automation" was the slogan, the goal being the enhancement of human abilities through computer technology. The key tools that NLS provided were:

The development of these required the creation of:

Itemizing these accomplishments using today's terminology emphasizes their detachment from one another. However, NLS was an integrated environment for natural idea processing. The emphasis was on a visual environment--a revolutionary idea at a time when most people (even programmers) had no direct contact with a computer. Input was by punched cards and output by paper tape.

Engelbart's work directly influenced the research at Xerox's PARC, which in turn was the inspiration for Apple Computers. Ted Nelson cites him as a major influence. In 1991, Engelbart and his colleagues were given the ACM Software System Award for their work on NLS.

Recently, Engelbart has been working at Stanford University, where he is director of the Bootstrap Project. As explained in "On Bootstrapping," the focus of this work is to bring together computer vendors, developers, and end-users to work in commonality on the technology that today's rapidly changing world requires.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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