Chapter from “The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart” by Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg in conversation with Douglas C. Engelbart.
In 1951, I wanted to learn about computers. There were not many computers in those days. You’d have to go clear to Boston or Baltimore to find a working computer. I think there were only about seven computers in the world. The University of California at Berkeley had a Navy research project to build a computer with vacuum tubes. The memory was on a rotating magnetic drum. It was scattered on racks around a room. I applied to U.C. Berkeley, where I eventually earned my Ph.D.
By the time I could do thesis research, people made it clear to me that any talk of using a computer interactively or to process logic, rather than numbers, was too far out. I had to settle for doing something else as a thesis and I happened to dream up some gaseous discharge phenomena to make computers work. It took a couple of years of work to make the tubes work and complete the Ph.D. By that time, we had three children. Little tiny twins came along after our first child. We weren’t very mobile.
My colleagues made it clear to me that the computer ideas I was talking about sounded crazy. People said, “You will never be anything but an acting assistant professor at the University if you keep talking like this. The only way you’re going to stay here is to teach and to develop a laboratory and publish things that are peer reviewed.” At that time, the salary for an acting assistant professor was less than what you would earn with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I stayed and taught for a year, but I was getting very restless.
I thought I could capitalize upon the patentable devices. A patent attorney said, “Gee, why don’t we form a corporation and then we’ll see if we can sell the corporation and share the profits.” We set up a company and found backers. They said, “Why don’t you build these things.” So pretty soon we set up a laboratory in the basement of a house we rented in North Oakland. The four of us were trying to build these devices in the basement while my wife, Ballard, and the three little girls were in the upstairs apartment. It was strenuous. The rapid emergence of semiconductor technology, just one year later, made it clear that what we were doing was not in line with the solid-state computer world.
My partners were still enthusiastic about going ahead anyway. They wanted to get a company established. After a few months, I still could not find a way to relate this work to my dream of augmenting the world. I finally called up my partners one Sunday and said, “I’m sorry, I have to go a different route.” They didn’t want to go ahead without me, and the whole thing collapsed. After a few months of negotiation, I was hired at SRI, then called Stanford Research Institute.
The first person I interviewed with was someone I’d known at Berkeley, and I told him what I really wanted to do with computers as communication devices. He listened. Then he said, “Have you talked to anybody else here yet?” I said, “No, you’re the first person.” He said, “well, I’ll tell you, I think if you want to get hired, you better not tell people this. It’s just too crazy.” “Oh,” I said.
I got the job and started being a good boy. Pretty soon, I had some more patents and was in good standing with the emergent community of high-tech solid-state circuit people around the country. Then I started saying, “But here’s what I really want to do.” And finally they sort of said, “Well, you can have part-time to do that.” It was very strange that, almost immediately, the feedback for the things I wrote went from “Oh, great, great!” to puzzled looks.
My boss gave me quite a lecture one day. He said, “Look, here’s eight pages you’ve gone through to describe this thing you want to do and it’s still all faint. Bill has just written this proposal, on one page, very concise, clear, describing exactly what he wants to do with his research.” The model proposal was very detailed in an intellectual domain that was already all thoroughly beaten out. What he was proposing was a very narrow research question pursuing a tiny sub-domain.
I tried to explain to my boss that I was interested in opening up an entirely new approach for which there is no vocabulary. Later, people used the term “paradigm shift” to describe a fundamental change in assumptions and thinking. If you’re really dealing with something in a different paradigm, the vocabulary of almost everything you’re trying to say is different. You have to somehow establish the terms as stepping-stones to arrive at what you’re trying to say. And people aren’t used to it taking that long for you to get the picture to them. That has been the basic problem ever since, when trying to describe the framework Augmentation System and the Bootstrap Strategy.