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A Computer Visionary Looks Back - and Ahead

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THE changes in information technology come so quickly that most people see only a blur. One generation of computers quickly surmounts another; the software writers never rest. How can the average business executive, educator, or administrator keep up?

Such questions occurred to Douglas Engelbart long before the rest of us had an inkling that digital technology would alter our lives. And from his Bootstrap Institute, located at the Logitech Corporation headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Mr. Engelbart is trying hard to answer them.

His lifework as a navigator for the information age began a few years after he returned from service in World War II as an electronics technician in the Navy. He had been impressed by a marvel of those times, radar. It got him thinking about how information can be visually displayed. Years later, Engelbart would pioneer the development of two-dimensional screens for computers. He'd also stage some of the first successful experiments with communication between computers, conceive the use of ``windows'' to allow a greater diversity of information on a screen, and come up with that gadget for manipulating on-screen data, the ``mouse.''

But the heart of his work has not been the invention of new computer gadgetry. Rather, it has been the often Herculean task of harmonizing revolutionary new tools and often reluctant human beings. That critical interface of the user and the machine held his attention through years at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and as a senior scientist with the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.

Colleagues sometimes thought he was nuts with his talk about interactive computing, screens, networking, and ``augmenting'' the human system. Now his solo voice has been joined by a chorus. But the work is far from finished in Engelbart's view.

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