Douglas Engelbart, creator of the first computer mouse who demonstrated the idea in the world's first video conference, has died at the age of 88.
The visionary engineer passed away on Wednesday of kidney failure after a long battle with Alzheimer's diseas, said his eldest daughter.
Engelbert entered the history books in December 1968 when, during the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, he performed a 90-minute live public demonstration of the world’s first online system. His team of 17 researchers from the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California, had been working on the project since 1962.
It was during this presentation that the computer mouse was showcased for the first time. It was a cube-shaped piece of wood with two rolling discs attached to it. Engelbart referred to the gadget as the "X-Y position indicator for a display system", which was later turned into a more user-friendly ‘mouse’.
The groundbreaking presentation, which in fact was the world’s first video conference, also contained other innovative applications – hypertext, object addressing, dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.
Engelbart also talked about a concept that would enable tying together pages of information using text-based links, which later became the basis for the World Wide Web architecture.
Despite his visionary qualities, Engelbart’s career, powered by the idea of a computer-augmented human intellect, was different from those of later Silicon-Valley geeks turned billionaires. It is said, he was simply too much ahead of time. For example, he never received any royalties for the mouse, which the SRI patented and later licensed to Apple.
The revolutionary idea of operating a computer with an outside tool was not commercialized until 1984, with Apple's new Macintosh. The mouse patent had a 17-year life span, and in 1987 the technology fell into the public domain.
"To see the Internet and the World Wide Web become the dominant paradigms in computing is an enormous vindication of his vision," said Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation. "It's almost like Leonardo da Vinci envisioning the helicopter hundreds of years before they could actually be built."
He believed that advances in computer science are at least of the same importance as harnessing thermonuclear power, exploring outer space or conquering cancer. But it took decades for him to be actually proven right.
"The possibilities we are pursuing involve an integrated man-machine working relationship, where close, continuous interaction with a computer avails the human of radically changed information-handling and -portrayal skills," he wrote in a 1961 research proposal at SRI.
In the final decades of his career, though being honoured by several awards including the National Medal of Technology and the Turing Award, Engelbart struggled to find funding for his research.
"I don't think he was at peace with himself, partly because many, many things that he forecasted all came to pass, but many of the things that he saw in his vision still hadn't," said Kapor, who helped fund Engelbart's work in the 1990s. "He was frustrated by his inability to move the field forward."
Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on 30 Jan, 1925 in Portland, Oregon, and later enrolled at the Oregon State University. During the World War 2, he served in the US Navy. After the war, he obtained doctorate in engineering from the Berkeley University and in 1957, he took the job in SRI that enabled him to push forward his innovative visions.