After studying electrical engineering at Oregon State University and serving as a radar technician during World War II, Engelbart first demonstrated his invention along with video teleconferencing at a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968 where other experts gave him a standing ovation. Two years later, he won a patent on the mouse, a wood box with two metal wheels in its earliest design. He then worked at Nasa's predecessor, Naca, as an electrical engineer, but soon left to pursue a doctorate at University of California, Berkeley.
His interest in how computers could be used to aid human cognition eventually led him to Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and then his own laboratory, the Augmentation Research Center. His laboratory helped develop ARPANet, the government research network that led to the internet.
He was intensely driven instead by a belief that computers could be used to augment human intellect. In talks and papers, he described with zeal and bravado a vision of a society in which groups of highly productive workers would spend many hours a day collectively manipulating information on shared computers.
"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.
His work, he argued with typical conviction, "competes in social significance with research toward harnessing thermonuclear power, exploring outer space, or conquering cancer.
The mouse patent had a 17-year life span and in 1987 the technology fell into the public domain — meaning Engelbart could not collect royalties on the mouse when it was in its widest use. At least one billion have been sold since the mid-1980s. But the mild-mannered Engelbart played down the importance of his inventions, stressing instead his bigger vision of using collaboration over computers to solve the world's problems.
"Many of those firsts came right out of the staff's innovations — even had to be explained to me before I could understand them," he said in a biography written by his daughter. "They deserve more recognition.""
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