Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

A tribute to one of Silicon Valley's most influential and forgotten researchers at Xerox Parc event

Posted by Tom Foremski - June 9, 2005

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The place to be Wednesday evening was at Xerox PARC, for a reunion of the seminal Homebrew Computer Club and a tribute to a man that history has tried to forget, or at least relegate to a minor role: Doug Engelbart.

Mr Engelbart is usually remembered simply as the inventor of the computer mouse. But dozens of computer pioneers stood up Wednesday to acknowledge his much larger role, as one of the most profound and influential thinkers of their time.

The tributes to Mr Engelbart went on and on, long after the allotted time for the event, with many stories told publicly for the first time. It was priceless material for future archaeologists exploring this fascinating spot on earth.

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The event was not billed as a love-fest for Mr Engelbart, but that's what it became, and you could not sit there and hear these people - many of them A-list names in their own right - and not walk away with a profound admiration for Mr Engelbart and his ability to change the lives of the super-smart elite of the early Silicon Valley.

The event was billed as a promotion for a book by one of Silicon Valley's most respected journalists, John Markoff of the New York Times. Mr Markoff grew up in the Valley and knows its history very well..


Researchers deny drug influence--we didn't inhale (much)

His latest book, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, details his theory that 60s drugs and counter-culture were responsible for fostering significant computer innovations such as the PC revolution.

However, many of the people mentioned in his book turned up at the event and said drugs had nothing to do with their work. They might have tried drugs later in life - but that was beside the point, they said. "It was psychedelic just being involved in the things we were doing in the labs," said Bill Duvall, a PARC veteran who took part in a panel following Mr. Markoff's presentation.

Mr Markoff uncovered some interesting experimentation initiated by a maverick CEO of electronics company Ampex, who in the early 60s wanted his engineers to take LSD to improve their creativity. The board of directors said no, and then had to fire him after they discovered he'd snuck off anyway on a mountain hike with seven or eight engineers and given them LSD.

There was also the story of the Stanford university campus Jesus cult, a group that split off into an LSD experimentation organization that turned on several hundred engineers over several years.

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A large part of the presentation was about Doug Engelbart and how he did not get the recognition he deserved for his early ideas on very significant concepts, such as timesharing in which many users can share one computer. Paradoxically, it was due to timesharing that the PC revolution took place, Mr Markoff argues, because everybody then wanted their own computer instead of a slice of a larger one.

Question everything

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Those heady days of the sixties and early 70s were marked by a big shift in US society as the shocking events of the Vietnam war shamed American youth into radical opposition. It was also a period that marked a fundamental shift in computer systems thinking, initiated by Doug Engelbart and his team of researchers at Stanford Research Institute, and the rival lab at Stanford University's AI labs known as SAIL.

Both these labs had the same types of uber-geeks, super smart and inspired by the 60s free-speech movement to question everything. This seems strange to us, in these times, where it is evident that you should cast doubt on everything that comes your way, but this was not always the case.

Challenging accepted notions and speaking your mind was not done much. It was difficult. That's why there was a free speech movement. It was revolutionary. The computer lab researchers of the time found they were discovering new methods of communication and computing by challenging accepted notions.

It is impressive to hear what people were doing by applying timeshare principles to computers. And they were creating applications that were way ahead of their time, resembling software that we are only now being able to build.

Rediscovering lost technologies

For example, we talk a lot on SVW about blogging, wikis and RSS, the media technologies defining this phase 2.0 of the internet. In 1965, Engelbart told me, "we had developed a way of sending email, and making any word of a document into a permalink, which could be linked to any other document or word and easily published to others. Essentially we had blogs and wikis."

The rival research centers, SAIL and SRI, were both funded by copious amounts of Pentagon money. Some of the researchers admitted that they were first attracted to the work because they could avoid the draft, as long as they worked on a military research project. Some said that they became staunch opponents of the Vietnam war and pursued social and community projects outside of research.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs kill the dream

Some of the researchers created the Homebrew computer club in 1975, where Microsoft and Apple Computer, the two most enduring dynasties of our young digital age, were born.

Mr. Markoff says the members of the Homebrew club shared everything freely, including software - until Bill Gates found out his fellow Homebrew club enthusiasts were sharing a copy of the BASIC language he had co-written. Gates hit the roof, accused everyone of piracy and demanded that people pay for the software.

That's where the book ends, and it implies that Bill Gates' focus on monetizing the early days of the PC led to the loss of this community of brilliant geeks, freaks and mad geniuses that interacted in wonderful ways. No filthy lucre in sight, until Gates came around.

The Homebrew club was also the stomping ground of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Like Gates and his partner Paul Allen, this dynamic duo also figured out a way to monetize things, and that's how the Apple I, the first real microcomputer, was born.

Bill Gates' demand for payment has long been seen as the beginning of the end for the Homebrew club and its innovations. However, if the computer enthusiasts of the Homebrew Club had continued to share their software for free, there would not have been a PC industry for many years.

Gates and Jobs found a business model. Business models attract funding, and an industry was born that accelerated PC innovation way beyond the hundred or so members of the Homebrew club, IMHO.

Engelbart and Moore's law

Tales of Doug Engelbart's influence continued to pepper Mr Markoff's presentation, such as that Mr Engelbart figured out much of what became known as Moore's law and made a presentation on the subject at a premiere chip conference. This was some four years before Mr Moore presented a paper at the same conference which led to Moore's Law....

Mr Markoff is riding in a car with Gordon Moore, wondering how to confront him with the fact that Mr Engelbart was the first to describe what became known as Moore's law. Then Mr Moore said he was in the audience during Mr Engelbart's presentation.

This was getting interesting, but then Mr Markoff abruptly changed the subject, leaving hanging the obvious question: Was Mr Moore unfairly given credit for similar ideas espoused by his forgotten hero Doug Engelbart, years earlier? And that Mr Moore had prior direct knowledge of those ideas? (I think I know what Gordon Moore would say - that he was not responsible for Moore's law, it was created by others.)

Mr Moore certainly fared a lot better than Doug Engelbart. The rise of the PC was also the rise of Intel, and the creation of the world's largest and most succesful chipmaker.

The rise of the PC was a disaster for Doug Engelbart

Tomorrow I'll tell you what Mr Engelbart thinks about the PC revolution, and how the counter-culture of the 60s helped kill his research projects. He talks of his frustration at not being able to continue his work.

"I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure," he says. "I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue."

Silicon Valley turned out to praise this man yet none have been willing to fund his work? Or listen to him and debate his ideas?

This is shocking. Mr Engelbart is 80 and motivated and seeking work. I think his struggle for funding is that many people in the valley still don't understand his ideas because they are enamoured by the PC "revolution."

You'll be shocked at what I discovered in talking with Mr Engelbart. And you might conclude, as I did, that we were close to having the keys to a golden digital future in the mid-60s, and that the move to the PC was a backward and destructive move that is only now being remedied.

It's an exclusive interview and you can only read it here on SiliconValleyWatcher...

Extras:

This historic event capped a three year long series organized by Sandy Rockowitz and Bebo White of the SDForum that consistently featured challenging thinkers. They are taking a break from the work of organizing what has probably become one of the most compelling speaker events in Silicon Valley.

This is the seminal 1968 demo that changed the lives of those that saw it, or just heard about it. Lee Felsenstein said "The demo changed my thinking and I wasn't even there, I had heard about it third-hand."

The people on the panel following the presentation:

Dennis Allison was co-founder of the Peoples Computer company, created Tiny Basic, and a founder of Dr. Dobbs Journal. He is currently a lecturer in the Computer Systems Laboratory at Stanford and works as an independent consultant.

Bill Duvall worked in Doug Englebart's Augment group at the Stanford Research Institute, where he wrote the software that sent the first ARPANet message, and subsequently moved to Xerox PARC.

Lee Felsenstein ran the Homebrew Computer Club, and designed the Sol and Osborne 1, two of the original personal computers. He is currently a partner at the Fonly Institute, a consulting and research organization focused on developing groundbreaking products that place computer power in the hands of ordinary people.

Larry Tesler worked at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and later Xerox PARC and Apple, where he was Vice-President and Chief Scientist. He is currently Vice-President and Research Fellow at Yahoo, where he heads their User Experience and Design Group.

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