50 Years Ago, ‘The Mother of All Demos’ Showed Us How Tech Would Transform the World

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It can be easy to take for granted the way modern computers and mobile devices work. We can manage our social lives, watch video, work on documents, and more with a simple graphical interface. That was not the case in past decades, but the first hints of the future we now live in came earlier than you might expect. Fifty years ago, Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) appeared on stage to give “the mother of all demos.” In the space of 90 minutes, he showed off revolutionary concepts like the mouse, word processing, and hyperlinks.

The demo took place on December 9, 1968, when the microchips that would drive the computer revolution didn’t even exist yet. Still, Engelbart and the team at SRI were already hard at work on a computer system for creating, managing, and linking files. The researchers had to build their own display in those days, which cost a whopping $90,000 in 1968. That’s the equivalent of about $650,000 today.

The demo at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium was the “coming out party” for this technology, but it wasn’t just a demo. As Engelbart clarified, the technology he showed off was in use at SRI. Like most computers of the day, it relied on a central database connected to multiple terminals. At the time of the demo, SRI had six working terminals with plans to add six more to help researchers get their work done quicker and more efficiently.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Engelbart explains how the programs developed at SRI could store and recall data in ways that past computers never could. Live, in front of a packed auditorium, Engelbart made lists, simple bitmap graphics, and basically uses the system like a PowerPoint presentation at times. The demo also includes linked files, which we might call hyperlinks. Engelbart calls it “jump on a link.”

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Perhaps the most striking part of the demo is that it uses both a keyboard and a mouse. It would be many more years before the mouse would show up on a computer available to the general public, but there was Doug Engelbart, clicking on items to direct his typed commands. The demo even included a preview of ARPANET, the system that would later become the internet as we know it. The NLS (oN-Line System) seen in the demo was one of the first four nodes of ARPANET.

Some of the technology first shown in the mother of all demos made its way to Xerox PARC, Apple, and eventually to the rest of the tech industry. To this day, you can trace the technology at your fingertips back to that day in 1968.

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