Science history: the day modern computing began


In 1968, almost two decades before personal computers arrived, the revolution kicked off. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


On 9 December 1968, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a weird invention known as a 'mouse'.

Hulton Archive/Getty Imagas

Apple Computers launched its Macintosh in January 1984. It was, the anonymous author of the History of Computers fan website says, “the first commercially successful personal computer to feature two old, known then but still unpopular, features – the mouse and the graphical user interface, rather than the command-line interface of its predecessors”.

In a 2014 article in The Guardian, headlined “From Windows 1 to Windows 10: 29 years of Windows evolution”, writer Samuel Gibbs says the original Microsoft Windows 1 was released in November 1985 and was the company’s “first true attempt at a graphical user interface in 16-bit”. It ran on top of MS-DOS, which relied on command-line input, and “was notable because it relied heavily on use of a mouse before the mouse was a common computer input device”.

Imagine, then, being in California on December 9, 1968, among 1000 or so professionals in the audience at the San Francisco Convention Centre, when a group of scientists and engineers from the wonderfully named Augmentation Research Centre, or ARC, at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), based up the road in Menlo Park, in the budding technology district known as Silicon Valley, presented a 90-minute demonstration of what they’d been working for the past few years.

It quickly achieved legend status as “the Mother of all Demos”.

During their 90-minute presentation, the SRI team, led by Douglas Engelbart at the computer keyboard, introduced the “mouse”, with which he moved a cursor across a screen, projected above the stage. While he typed, his work appeared on his screen in San Francisco, and at the same time on another one in the SRI Menlo Park offices. He also demonstrated hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as the shared-screen collaboration, communicating over a network with audio and video interface.

As Klint Finley, writing in the December 2018 issue of Wired magazine, describes it, “You can draw a line from the technologies introduced at the ‘Mother of All Demos’ to the internet, the web, Wikipedia, the Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, Google Docs, and a host of other technologies” that now dominate daily life.

As Margaret O'Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, in Seattle, US, writes in a 2018 article for The Conversation, the Mother of all Demos “previewed a world of personal and online computing utterly different from 1968’s status quo. It wasn’t just the technology that was revelatory; it was the notion that a computer could be something a non-specialist individual user could control from their own desk.”

Klint Finley says Engelbart “concluded the 1968 presentation by explaining what he believed he had demonstrated. He said it was intended to ‘augment computer system development and develop ‘quite a few design principles for developing our augmentation systems. And these, I hope are transferable things.’”

In other words, Finley says, “he wasn't presenting a collection of hardware and software, but a system for developing hardware and software – a system that ideally could be useful in other endeavors. He was demonstrating a way of working.”

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://history-computer.com/ModernComputer/Personal/Macintosh.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/02/from-windows-1-to-windows-10-29-years-of-windows-evolution
  3. https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/science-history-the-traps-of-building-a-better-mouse
  4. https://www.wired.com/story/50-years-later-we-still-dont-grasp-the-mother-of-all-demos/
  5. https://theconversation.com/in-1968-computers-got-personal-how-the-mother-of-all-demos-changed-the-world-101654
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