Go Backbiographies index
Douglas C. Engelbart
1925 USA
engelbart.gif (63765 bytes)

engelbart1.jpg (12124 bytes)

engelbart2.jpg (4937 bytes)






Doug Engelbart, Bootstrap Institute founder and Director, has an unparalleled 30-year track record in predicting, designing, and implementing the future of organizational computing. From his early vision of turning organizations into augmented knowledge workshops, he went on to pioneer what is now known as collaborative hypermedia, knowledge management, community networking, and organizational transformation. Well-known technological firsts include the mouse, display editing, windows, cross-file editing, outline processing, hypermedia, and groupware. Integrated prototypes were in full operation under the NLS system, as early as 1968. In the last decade of its continued evolution, thousands of users have benefited from its unique team support capabilities.

After 20 years directing his own lab at SRI, and 11 years as senior scientist, first at Tymshare, and then at McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute, where he is working closely with industry and government stakeholders to launch a collaborative implementation of his work.

Engelbart has received numerous awards for outstanding lifetime achievement and ingenuity. His life's work, with his "big-picture" vision and persistent pioneering breakthroughs, has made a significant impact on the past, present, and future of personal, interpersonal, and organizational computing.


curriculum vitea


Related Subjects



  Overview A pioneer in the area of human-computer communications, Engelbart’s theories on using computers and software to augment human intellect led to the development of such items as the graphical user interface (GUI) and the mouse.
Although such things as the graphical user interface and the mouse are largely taken for granted today, they might not be part of the computing environment without Douglas Engelbart and his quest to develop a computerized system to assist human intellect.Douglas Engelbart was born in 1925 in Portland, Ore. He graduated from high school in Portland and enrolled at Oregon State University in Corvallis in 1942. Engelbart planned to study electrical engineering, and had a strong interest in learning RADAR, at the time a new military technology. Although he had no interest in a military career, he also had no other career plans. He was merely interested in getting an education. Engelbart was drafted at the end of his sophomore year, and took a test the Navy had designed to identify individuals with interest in RADAR technology. He passed the test and was accepted into the Navy’s year-long training program. It was Engelbart’s years as a radar tech that would greatly shape his future vision of how computers should display information. Also an early influence on his work was Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article "As We May Think," a discussion of the future use of machines as mechanical aids to human intellect, which he read in a Red Cross hospital in the Phillipines while awaiting discharge.Following the war, Engelbart returned to Oregon State University, where he received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1948. After graduation, he took a position as an electrical engineer at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.It was during this time that Engelbart began thinking about how complicated the world had become and how humans would manage the complex new challenges they were facing. He considered the human thought process, and the tools humans use to think.While driving to work one day, he saw an image of the radar screens he had spent hours scanning while in the Navy, and he envisioned how similar screens could be used to display information from a computer. The theory of augmentation—assisting the development of greater human intellect by allowing machines to perform the mechanical part of thinking and idea sharing—began to develop.At the time, there was just a handful of computers across the country, and the only way to get information from them was through punch cards and printouts. Yet, Engelbart could see how easily computers and human beings could work together if the tools could be developed to allow them to do so. It would take some 10 years before he would find anyone to take him seriously, however.In 1951, Engelbart decided to look for a way to get into the computer field. He left Ames and entered graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, which was conducting a project to build a general purpose digital computer. Although he didn’t make contact with an actual computer at Berkeley until 1953, and he wasn’t able to convince his colleagues to spend valuable research time investigating his ideas, he did receive his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1955, and he stayed on to teach for another year. Hoping to develop some of the patents from his Ph.D. work to fund his augmentation research, Engelbart then started a small business. He closed it in 1957 when he realized that the semiconductor industry was poised to bypass much of his earlier research.Tired after seven years of trying to convince others of the ideas he wished to pursue, Engelbart took a position as a computer researcher with the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. There, he was able to persuade SRI’s management to devote some of its internal research and development money to his efforts. Coupled with funds Engelbart had received from the Air Force, he was able to work full-time for several years at his regular job, using his spare time to develop and write the concepts behind the technologies he envisioned. This work would help fund his future research.The launch of the Soviet spaceship Sputnik in 1957 would propel Engelbart’s research forward as well. In response to Sputnik’s launch, and the ensuing concern over the U.S.’s loss of technological superiority, the federal government developed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to fund new research projects that might help the U.S. regain its traditional strength.One of the projects ARPA staff was interested in was Engelbart’s, and in 1963 his group at SRI received funding for a laboratory designed to move computer technology into a new realm. Engelbart called this process "bootstrapping," a term he still uses today, and he named the laboratory the Augmentation Research Center (ARC).There, Engelbart and several colleagues created the On-Line System (NLS), the first integrated environment for idea processing. The system utilized a number of tools that most computer users take for granted today—outline editors for idea development, a mouse pointing device for on-screen selection, shared-screen teleconferencing, hypertext linking, word processing, e-mail, on-line help systems, and a full windowing software environment. In 1968, Engelbart and his group demonstrated these capabilities at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. Before a large audience, using a keyboard, screen, mouse and a head-mounted microphone, Engelbart demonstrated the system he had long dreamed about. It was the first working model for the future of computers, and it electrified the audience.ARPA canceled the funding of the Augmentation Center in the early 1970s, and the center closed in 1977. Many of the team members went on to the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a new research center Xerox Corporation had built. There, Engelbart’s creations were refined, added to, and used as the basis for the first personal computer, the Altair. Engelbart, however, joined Tymshare Inc., which had bought the teleconferencing system he demonstrated at the San Francisco conference in 1968. He worked at Tymshare as a senior scientist until the company was purchased by McDonnell Douglas Corp. in 1989.In recent years, Engelbart has worked at Stanford University, where he is director of the Bootstrap Project. The focus of the project is to bring together computer vendors, developers, and end-users to work together on the technology required by today’s rapidly changing world. The project is funded by the Kapor Family Foundation, Apple Computers, and Sun Microsystems. 

Douglas Carl Engelbart has a thirty-year track record in predicting, designing, and implementing the future of organizational computing.

The grandson of early pioneers of the West, he grew up during the Great Depression on a small farmstead near Portland, Oregon. After graduating from high school in 1942, he went on to study Electrical Engineering at Oregon State University. Setting his studies aside, he joined the Navy during World War II, serving for two years as an electronic/radar technician in the Phillipines.

After completing his Bachelors Degree in E.E. in 1948, he settled contentedly on the San Francisco peninsula as an electrical engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory (forerunner of NASA).

However, within three years he grew restless, feeling there was something more important he should be working on, dedicating his career to. He thought about the world's problems, and what he as an engineer might possibly be able to do about them. He had read about the development of the computer, and seriously considered how it might be used to support mankind's efforts to solve these problems. As a radar technician he had seen how information could be displayed on a screen. He began to envision people sitting in front of displays, "flying around" in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility. So he applied to the graduate program in Electrical Engineering at U.C. Berkeley to launch his new crusade (at that time there was no computer science department, and the closest working computer was in Maryland).

He earned his Ph.D. in 1955, along with a half dozen patents in "bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices", and then stayed on as Acting Assistant Professor. However, within a year he was tipped off by a colleague that if he kept talking about his "wild ideas" he'd be an Acting Assistant Professor forever. So he ventured back down the Peninsula in search of a more suitable outpost.

He settled on a research position at SRI (then Stanford Research Institute), where he earned another dozen patents in two years working on magnetic computer components, fundamental digital-device phenomena, and miniaturization scaling potential.

By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval to pursue his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a theoretical framework for a new discipline, which became the guiding force for his seminal work This framework is based on the assumptions that complexity and urgency are increasing exponentially, and that the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps. Therefore, in addition to aspiring to be increasingly faster and smarter at their core missions (whether creating better widgets, or solving societal problems), organizations will have to get increasingly faster and smarter at how they keep improving. Engelbart saw both organizational missions as relying on the same core capabilities, which he encapsulated in the term human intellect (later switching to Drucker's knowledge work).

This thinking prompted an analysis of what capabilities humans draw from, aside from what they are born with, to boost their intellect. A myriad of technical and non-technical elements emerged, such as tools, media, language, customs, knowledge, skills, procedures, and so on. He recognized that these elements had co-evolved slowly over centuries, but with the advent of digital technology, the technical elements would shoot way ahead of the non-technical, and tend to automate rather than augment human intellect. What would be needed would be to engineer all the elements in an accelerating co-evolutionary process, setting up advanced pilot "outposts" in which to experiment and explore future work modes. He further surmised that an early target for application should be to support improvement activities, especially the designers, implementers, and deployers of these tools and practices (the essence of bootstrapping).

Then in 1963 he finally got the funds to start his own research lab, which he later dubbed the Augmentation Research Center. He began by developing the kind of technology he believed would be required to augment our human intellect, and also to support the bootstrapping/augmentation process. Throughout the '60s and '70s his lab pioneered an elaborate hypermedia-groupware system called NLS (for oNLine System), most of whose now-common features were conceived of, fully integrated, and in everyday operational use, by the early 1970s .

In the spring of 1967, it was announced that all the ARPA-sponsored computer research labs, including Engelbart's, would be networked to promote resource sharing. Engelbart was thrilled. He saw the ARPANET as an excellent vehicle for extending NLS provisions for wide-area distributed collaboration. He also saw NLS as a natural to support an online directory of resources, so he proposed a Network Information Center (NIC), which he built up and directed until around 1977, when it spun off as an independent operation. Because of this early active role in the formation of the ARPANET community, his site was (www.csl.sri.com/history/augmentation.html) the second host on the network. NLS was first demonstrated in public at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in a remarkable 90-minute multimedia presentation, in which Engelbart used NLS to outline and illustrate his points, while others of his staff linked in from his lab at SRI to demonstrate key features of the system. This was the world debut of the mouse, hypermedia, and on-screen video teleconferencing  and; selected footage is also on display at the Smithsonian Museum Exhibit on The Information Age).

Pioneering Firsts

In keeping with his Augmentation framework, Engelbart incorporated psychology and organizational development into his research. He also believed very strongly that the human-tool co-evolution should be based on rigorous exploratory use in a wide variety of real-world applications. So in the mid-'70s he began building a community of users via the ARPANET and sponsored user group meetings of "Knowledge Work Architects" to collaborate on pilot trials and future requirements.

In keeping with his Bootstrapping strategy, he employed NLS from the beginning for distributed collaborative software engineering, technology transfer, and community support . For example, his Knowledge Work Architects Community was supported by NLS, as was his entire R&D operation-NLS was developed and maintained using NLS in structured hypertext files, with links between the source code, design documents, specifications, bug reports, change requests, thinkpieces, commentary, rationale, customer records, etc. At its peak his SRI lab had grown to 47 people, inluding the NIC. (For a more detailed autobiographical rendition of his "odyssey" since 1951,).

In 1977 Tymshare bought the commercial rights to NLS, renamed it AUGMENT, and set it up as a principal line of business in a newly formed Office Automation Division. There the focus switched from R&D to commercialization, and in spite of Engelbart's efforts, the human/organizational work was cut off, including his carefully cultivated user group. In 1984 Tymshare was acquired by McDonnell Douglas Corporation, where Engelbart began working closely with the aerospace components on issues of integrated information system architectures and associated evolutionary strategies (a welcome extension of his work at SRI). In the last decade, thousands of knowledge workers in industry and government have benefited from the unique team support capabilities of NLS and its evolutionary successor AUGMENT. In recent years there has been a surge of interest and exploration in the new interrelated topics of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, groupware, and hypermedia. It is now recognized that Engelbart's emphasis at SRI on supporting collaborative work, and the breadth of associated system development, not only clearly anticipated this major trend, but produced in NLS/AUGMENT what is still the most comprehensive system for supporting wide-area collaboration Engelbart's work has never been easy. Through the years he has been misunderstood, told he was "dead wrong", ridiculed, or simply ignored, which many say is to be expected when one is "20 years ahead of his time". As each new wave of the computer revolution unfolds (e.g. office automation, personal computing, groupware, hypertext), and people's experience become more aligned with Engelbart's vision, they typically say "OK, now I see what he was trying to do". However, they are still looking at bits of his past, while he continues to point into the future ... In recent years, Engelbart has been heartened by the movements in total quality, business process reengineering, reinventing organizations, concurrent engineering, groupware, hypermedia, the World Wide Web, and all the impressive networks of improvement activities sprouting up all over the world. He is hopeful that enough synergy can be generated among these activities to ignite a serious, thriving bootstrapping activity-a collaborative improvement community aimed at spawning those quantum leap improvements in our organizations, boosting our "collective IQ" to unforeseen heights. This bootstrapping community would jointly pioneer future work modes, enabled by advanced, rapidly evolving prototypes, and pioneer better and better strategies for designing, implementing, and transferring those work modes into common practice. The community would act as a rigorous beta site of its R&D results, a staging area for implementing and evaluating pilot trials, and an industry focus for anticipating requirements and the much needed industry standards in this arena. In 1989 Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute, feeling the time was ripe to pursue in earnest his comprehensive strategy for bootstrapping organizations into the 21st century. His focus continues to be in creating high-performance organizations by fostering bootstrapping communities, researching and developing the enabling technologies, best practices, and special strategies for developing and deploying these capabilities on a continuous improvement basis, with pro-active participation from stakeholders in government, industry, and society . Engelbart divides his time between R&D, consulting, publications, speaking engagements, and leading seminars, workshops, and participatory "expeditions". Doug Engelbart has authored over 25 publications, and generated 20 patents, including the patent for the mouse. He has also received numerous honors, including:


Doug Engelbart lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife of over 40 years and two cats, and in close proximity to all 4 children and 8 grandchildren. He has enjoyed exercising, hiking, camping, sailing, reading, folk dancing, bike riding (although he has appeased his wife by giving up trick riding), raising ducks, earthworms, and bees, making up science fiction fantasy stories for children, science lectures for his wife when she has trouble sleeping, and any excuse for a family gathering.

Honors and awards



Footnotes & References


1 courtesy the Bootstrap institute
2 courtesy Jones International and Jones Digital Century