The Mother of All Demos: The 1968 Presentation That Sparked a Tech Revolution

On December 9, 1968, Dr. Douglas Engelbart addressed a packed theater at the Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, demonstrating a new computing platform that heralded advancements from the computer mouse to videoconferencing. Forty-five years later, we're still reaping the benefits of his vision.

Douglas Engelbart at 1968 demo
Dec. 9, 1968

"If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with ... a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?"

So Dr. Douglas Engelbart kicked off his December 1968 demonstration of the oNLine System (NLS), a remarkable computing platform developed by his team at Stanford Research Institute's Augmentation Research Center. Engelbart, who passed away this year, showed what it would be like if computers were always with us, facilitating communication and collaboration, making information accessible and easy to manipulate.

That presentation, which was later dubbed "The Mother of All Demos," inspired a generation of computer scientists and helped spur the personal computing revolution.

scenes from The Mother of All Demos
Introducing the mouse ... and much, much more

The Mother of All Demos famously marked the first public outing of the computer mouse, but it also introduced a far bolder vision of the future -- one where computers would augment the minds of the human race. (Watch SRI's video highlights of the demo.)

Notably, Engelbart wasn't thinking about computers aiding hardcore research like rocket science; he was thinking about ordinary knowledge work. Much of what he demonstrated, from word processing and videoconferencing to linked information and gesture-based computing, is now part of everyday life and has helped raise the collective level of the human intelligence pool.

Join us as we look at some of the innovations the doctor and his team introduced 45 years ago, and how they look today.

1968 videoconference and Google Hangouts
Credit: SRI International/YouTube, Google
Videoconferencing

It was brilliant showmanship to project members of the NLS team (including Jeff Rulifson, shown here) on a huge screen in San Francisco when they were actually sitting at terminals 30 miles away. That gimmick captured the imagination of businesspeople (and a healthy chunk of their budgets) for decades.

What cost thousands of 1960s dollars to create can now be done, up to a point, using free tools like FaceTime and Yahoo Chat. Services such as Skype Premium, Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting add multipoint video chat and shared collaborative screens for meetings, webinars and training sessions. And to recapture the wow factor of the Mother of All Demos, pricey wall-sized telepresence displays make you feel like you're really in the same room with other attendees.

NLS keyset, keyboard, mouse plus Microsoft mouse, Apple Magic trackpad and iPad 3
Credit: SRI International/YouTube, Microsoft, Apple
Gesture-based computing

Engelbart interacted with the NLS via a keyboard and two novelties -- a three-button mouse and a lesser-known flat five-key handset that accepted finger gestures without quite resembling a modern trackpad. The user could press up to 31 key combinations, or "chords," on the handset to invoke different actions.

More than a way to enhance keyboard-based control, these devices moved beyond word-based input to more intuitive hand movements, paving the way for the gesture-based computing that became mainstream with the 2007 launch of the iPhone. Today's multitouch gestures -- tapping, pinching, rotating and swiping -- are the direct descendants of the clicking and chording that Engelbart demonstrated in 1968.

NLS copy and paste plus Autofill in Excel
Copy and paste

Engelbart's demonstration started out, like most projects, with a blank screen. To populate it with data, he performed a function that is so mundane to our eyes, it's hard to conceive how revolutionary it was at the time: He selected some text, copied it, and pasted it repeatedly.

To get an idea of how brilliant copy and paste seemed, think back to the first time you saw Microsoft Excel's Autofill: You type the word Tuesday into a cell, drag the cell down and Excel automatically advances the days of the week into each successive cell.

Your smartphone's autocomplete function takes things a step further, anticipating your intent before you even finish typing a word. And isn't that what augmenting human intellect is all about?

outlining in demo and sorting in Finder
Outlining and sorting data

During the demo, Engelbart created a quick list and used an obscure formatting command and a lot of copying and pasting to create an outline with headings. With a modern graphical word processor, it's a lot easier: Select any list, pick an outline style, et voila! The barrier to creating an information hierarchy is gone.

Software developers have taken Engelbart's vision even further with tricks like one-click data sorting. A mainstay of spreadsheets, basic alphanumeric sorting is now everywhere: Click on a column heading of any list in almost any application, file manager or website, and you can change its sort order. It's so easy you can do it by accident.

windows in demo and in Windows
Credit: SRI International/Internet Archive
Windowing

In the '60s era of single-screen teletype computing, one of the factors that set the NLS apart was its use of a windowed interface. In a paper-based world, people worked by arranging and stacking multiple pages all the time, but it took real genius to translate that concept onto a computer screen.

The demo used television overlays to place live video of the participants next to the data, with separate panes for commands and information.

Further developed at Xerox PARC and elsewhere, windowing became the cornerstone of modern operating systems. For decades we've been able to run dozens of overlapping windows on our computers and switch graphically among them. Nowadays we can do it on our phones too.

collaborative editing
Credit: YouTube.com
Real-time screen sharing and collaborative editing

One of the demo's more whimsical moments came when Engelbart jumped in to work on the same document as his colleague Bill Paxton, who was 30 miles away. The tiny little screen cursors of Paxton's and Engelbart's mice chased each other around to demonstrate that yes, they were sharing the same screen, about to edit the same document.

This vision resulted in screen-sharing technologies found in remote access software like TeamViewer, chat apps like iChat and online meeting services like WebEx. But the real key was that two men were editing the same document at the same time. This part of Engelbart's vision is trickling into the mainstream with such cloud apps as Google Docs -- where my editor and I worked on this story together.

revison tracking and control
Credit: SRI International/YouTube
Revision tracking and control

A necessary adjunct to the business of collaborative editing is keeping an accurate record of who did what to a document. In a non-real-time way, NLS as demonstrated by Engelbart had it.

Microsoft Office's Track Changes feature does too: As files get passed around, the comments, additions and deletions of each contributor appear in different colors, waiting for an editor to accept, reject or modify changes.

Collaborative cloud-based tools such as Google Docs, wikis and knowledge bases have embraced revision control even more tightly, with the ability to quickly roll back to previous versions of a file. It's in wikis and other joint projects that collaborative editing and strong revision control have found their strongest advocates. Where would Wikipedia be without revision control?

links in 1968 demo
Credit: YouTube.com
Information linking

Hypertext -- the art of linking data between files -- wasn't SRI's invention; it was theorized at the end of WWII by Vannevar Bush and developed independently by Ted Nelson. But Engelbart and team demonstrated it brilliantly. The sight of a man calling up new data with a click ("jumping to link," as they called it) was jaw-dropping.

These days, we take linked text (and images) for granted, but the web of knowledge the NLS introduced was a revolution, one that was further extended by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1990s when he developed his own research web at CERN and took it worldwide on the Internet.

And that's how this article was researched, written, edited, published and navigated by its readers.

ARPA mention in demo, Internet map
Networking

The NLS demo wasn't networked; it was based on time-sharing with terminals. But in his closing statements, Engelbart mentioned SRI's upcoming involvement in an experimental network project at ARPA, which he predicted would grow to a nationwide network of 20 computers that would transmit data across the country at 20Kbps.

That remark showed the only shortsightedness in the whole demo: ARPA's network became the Internet. If Engelbart were still with us on the 45th anniversary of the demo, he could conceivably Skype it in orbit from the International Space Station.

Watch the entire demo at the Internet Archive.

Matt Lake is a freelance writer and technical services coordinator who used all of Engelbart's innovations in the creation of this article.