This weekend is Mother’s Day and many of us will be celebrating with our loved ones remotely. As many of us are working and socializing from home, I’d like to hearken back to the birth of video conferencing and human-computer interaction. Whether you are using Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or another video meeting service to stay connected during this time, you are using technology that was only a futuristic dream a few decades ago! To explore how working from home became a reality, let’s go back to Douglas Engelbart and his “Mother of All Demos”—the very first video conference!
“Technology should not aim to replace humans, rather amplify human capabilities.” — Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart, head of the Augment Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute, gave a presentation at the Fall Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco on December 7, 1968. It was the culmination of a decade of research on human-computer interaction and design. Retroactively called the “Mother of All Demos,” this event would change the field of computing forever. Engelbart demonstrated a new concept: a personal computer system called the oN-Line System or NLS using an SDS-940 mainframe computer. Technologies first demonstrated at this presentation include the computer mouse, hypertext, word processing, the first graphical user interface (GUI), real-time collaboration, and early video conferencing technology to “stream” the event 30 miles away to 1,000 engineers and scientists.
(A still of student researcher Bill Paxton from the Mother of All Demos. Paxton earned his PhD at Stanford, eventually helped found Adobe Systems, and was one of the original designers and implementers of Postscript.)
Engelbart was able to send live two-way footage of the demonstration from his research lab at Stanford to the conference. He and his team used a television video projector called an Eidophor to project what was happening on the computer’s display onto a 22ft by 18ft screen so attendees could see what was going on in real-time. A computer workstation at the Civic Center was linked using a leased line to transfer data to and from the SDS-940 at the research center using two custom handmade modems. At a whopping 1200 baud, it was futuristically fast for 1968!
Live footage of Engelbart and his researchers in Menlo Park was paired with the GUI action happening on the computer display in real-time. Microwave transmission was used to create a live two-way video feed between the lab and the conference hall. Bob English, the technical director of the demonstration and the first person employed on Engelbart’s project at the Augment Research Center, used a video switcher to edit the footage in real-time. This created an experience that was simultaneous and seamless.
(Living Computers Museum Guides working from home, March 2020)
This groundbreaking demonstration would forever change the trajectory of the computing world. It was so impressive that many who saw the demonstration thought the video conferencing aspect was faked! Without the contributions of Douglas Engelbart and his team at the Augment Research Center we would simply not be able to work from home today. Engelbart wanted to design technology that would make solving the world’s biggest problems easier to tackle so that enlightened humans could evolve.
While it isn’t the same as being in person, video conferencing technology has kept us all connected in very challenging times. Today we can stay connected in ways that used to be unfathomable, and for that we can all thank Douglas Engelbart and his Mother of All Demos. This Sunday don’t forget to harness the power of modern computing to FaceTime your mother! She will be thankful you did.
Living Computers: Museum + Labs currently has an original Douglas Engelbart mouse and keyset on display. While we are closed, you can watch the Mother of All Demos free online
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