The World-Changing Computer You've Never Heard Of


On this day in economic and financial history ...

On Dec. 9, 1968, a group of about 1,000 computer scientists attended a demonstration so advanced that its true importance wouldn't be understood for many years. The vast majority of attendees thought the demonstrator was a "crackpot." They questioned the usefulness of his developments. They didn't know what they were looking at. What they saw was the future, in a very real way.

It was the "Mother of All Tech Demos," presented by Douglas Englebart of SRI International, then known as the Stanford Research Institute. What he created for that demonstration remains so staggeringly advanced that it's yet to be fully replicated in today's operating systems. Computers of 1968 used punch cards and paper printouts, were huge and bulky, and barely had anything that could be considered graphical. Englebart showed the computing world of 1968 a real personal computer.

Englebart's demonstration contained the first use of a pseudo-graphical user interface, the operating system of which was dubbed NLS, for "oN Line System." It was also the first public use of a computer mouse, which Englebart and his team had named. It introduced the world to hypertext, the linking of one reference point to another, which featured in the first word processor that Englebart's team had developed. It included the earliest computer videoconference, and it had a proto-network that allowed collaborative real-time edits, with multiple people working on the same document simultaneously. It even contained the earliest conceptual form of PowerPoint! The demo was so streamlined that a Wired retrospective on the the event's 40th anniversary claims that "even a modern-day computer user might feel envious at the speed and ease with which he moved words, sentences, and outline headings on the page."

Professor Andries Van Dam remembers the demo as a seamless operating environment that modern computers still haven't matched. On the 40th anniversary of the Mother of All Tech Demos, he told The Register that "NLS hasn't really been realized with the mainstream market." More than four decades later, we still don't have a system in which all the component programs work together seamlessly. "Everything interoperated in this super-rich environment," Van Dam says. "And if you look at the demo carefully, it's about modifying, it's about studying, it's about being really analytical and reflecting about what's happening."

NLS was the inspiration for Xerox's PARC team to develop the Alto computer, which is often considered the grandfather of personal computing. PARC built a true graphical user interface on top of NLS's mouse-based navigation, which later inspired both Steve Jobs at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft . These two companies earned far more from Englebart's innovations than Englebart ever did, even though he's listed as the inventor on the 1970 patent for the computer mouse. SRI International later licensed the mouse patent to Apple for its groundbreaking personal computers for about $40,000.

Today, a fifth of the Dow Jones Industrial Average -- Microsoft, Intel , Cisco , IBM , and Hewlett-Packard -- is directly or closely dedicated to furthering the innovations originally demonstrated on Dec. 9, 1968. Together, these five components make up about 16% of the Dow's total weighting and are worth a combined $670 billion.

Englebart continues to be active in the computing world as he approaches his ninth decade. He also continues to use NLS, a modified version of which still runs on his home computer.

You can watch the Mother of All Tech Demos in its entirety on the Stanford website.

Red scare
At the height of McCarthyism, on Dec. 9, 1953, General Electric became one of many companies to succumb to shameful anti-Communist fearmongering. That day, the company revealed its plans to "immediately fire admitted Communists, spies, and saboteurs and suspend employees who refuse to testify under oath before 'a competent government authority' on such matters."

Sen. Joseph McCarthy had, by that point, already been investigating alleged Communist infiltration at defense plants, including some run by GE. At the time, GE operated 131 plants, with defense-contracting work concentrated primarily in 14 large plants employing 69,000 workers out of a total workforce of 230,000. McCarthy himself commented on the action, saying that GE "certainly should be complimented" for its actions.

A year later, McCarthy's paranoid nuttery earned him censure from his fellow senators, making him one of only nine in the upper chamber so publicly rebuked in the history of the United States. General Electric, for its part, quietly pushed the incident under the rug.

Foolish wrap-up
Today, Microsoft and Apple are engaged in a battle to decide the future of mobile. They've moved well past the mouse, but can either company come close to the operating fluidity Doug Englebart first displayed more than 40 years ago? The Fool's tech analysts have been covering both companies very closely and can answer your questions in our detailed and unbiased premium research reports. Whether you're an Apple fanatic or a Micro-softie, you'll find plenty of information to help you decide whether these computing titans deserve to remain in your portfolio for the long haul. Click on Apple, or click on Microsoft, to subscribe to the report of your choice today.

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