The Mother Of All Demos

By | Tuesday, December 09, 2008 Leave a Comment
Forty years ago today, Douglas Engelbart -- then working at Stanford Research Institute -- unveiled his new computing device, the mouse, at "the mother of all demos" which also showcased his ground-breaking work on interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email and hypertext...

Collectively, this was effectively the first public appearance of what was to become all this hoohah we call the Internet.

1968! Let's take a look at what the world looked like in 1968...
  • The Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War
  • The U.S. goes off the gold standard
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey premiers
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated
  • Richard Nixon elected U.S. President
  • Eric Bana and Hugh Jackman are born
  • Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuts

Of all the things that were going on in 1968, Englebart's presentation probably had the greatest impact on the comic book industry. Not just the online comics you're reading, but every comic book that's in production in any almost capacity is developed or printed or distributed using computers and electronic communications. It's easy to see the online comics in this light, but how many comics today are sent back and forth via email or FTP servers as they're being produced? How many are sent electronically to the printers? How many are solicited via emails, online news sites and blogs? Business on the whole would look completely different today if it weren't for the invention of the computer and the internet. The importance of easily-used input devices and inter-computer communications cannot be understated here.

I'm 100% certain that Engelbart had zero clue as to all the facets of 21st century life he was to have an impact on. In 1968, all of these fanciful ideas were almost purely science fiction. And, heck, most of the science fiction being generated back then was still only trying to predict the impossibly distant future of the 1980s. (Either that, or going into the REALLY impossibly distant futures seen in shows like Star Trek or The Jetsons.)

Engelbart's presentation was stealthy, in a way. Even though what was he doing was revolutionary to those who knew about it, no one could foresee it's impact. What he was doing in real-time outclassed the science fiction gadgetry of Mr. Spock. But, because it wasn't shiny (that's his original mouse at the right) and didn't have big tail fins, and it didn't remind people of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, it didn't capture the imagination in the same way as people like Julie Schwartz and Gene Roddenberry were doing. It was, in effect, poorly marketed.

In fact, the personal computer wouldn't really take off for another 15-20 years. Some of that, admittedly, was getting the price point down to something Joe Average could afford, but much of it had to do with making the computer sexy and functional for some day-to-day operations.

I don't want to get in to an extended discussion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs here, though, so let me end by taking a moment to honor Douglas Engelbart and his team who made history 40 years ago today. And who are "honored" every day by people like me who are able to ramble on about the trivialities of comic books in a truly world-wide forum like this.
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