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Engelbart Was a Computing Pioneer and Mentor

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Many of the features we take for granted in modern computing and communications can be traced back to the visionary work of Douglas Engelbart, who passed away last week at the age of 88. It is hard to overstate the importance of his pioneering insights, which ranged from the invention of the computer mouse to the concept of hypertext links which are fundamental to the World Wide Web.

I met Engelbart in 1978. Although a kind and thoughtful man, it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by the brilliance of his insights into how computers would become essential to our day-to-day lives. I had been hired by Bell Northern Research to forecast how computers would change the workplace and I travelled around the world to speak with anyone that could offer any insight. All roads led to Engelbart and the Stanford Research Institute.

Engelbart's thinking was revolutionary. In the early 1960s, people felt computers were enormous machines designed to crunch numbers, and could only be controlled through punch cards or ticker tape. During this period Engelbart foresaw that computers would display information through images on monitors, computers would become networked, people would collaborate through computers, and user features such as hypertext would allow the user to jump from one piece of information to another. Engelbart had worked as a radar technician during his time in the army, and was comfortable with the idea of screens displaying information graphically.

In 1964 -- 30 years prior to the world wide web -- Engelbart wrote a seminal paper "Augmenting Human Intellect" arguing that "knowledge workers" would use connected computers as communications tools to augment the way we collaborate, work and even think.

I spent the day with Engelbart at the Institute. He was keen to show me his ideas being put into practice. Professionals were communicating and collaborating with one another via email. He believed the mouse would become essential to using computers, and had invented a new keyboard with five piano-like keys. You could type words using just your left hand while mousing with your right.

I immediately set out to replicate Engelbart's work at Bell Northern Research. We set up two groups. One was typical for the times, which included managers having secretaries that used typewriters and used typed memos to communicate, photocopied material, had manual calendars and so on. The other group functioned with the technology that Engelbart had envisioned. Using a variety of metrics it was clear the computer-assisted group was more productive. That group also found work more fun.

Over the next decades he became an occasional mentor, and I marvel to this day what a visionary he was. To me, he was the most important early thinker of the digital revolution and I mourn his passing.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Don Tapscott's most recent book (co-author Anthony D. Williams) is a TED e-book Radical Openness. Twitter @dtapscott

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