Chapter from The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart by Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg in conversation with Douglas C. Engelbart
One Monday in December 1950, I was driving to work. I had just gotten engaged on Saturday night. I had a job working for the NACA, that’s the forerunner of NASA, at Ames Laboratory down here in Mountain View. It was a good job, as an electrical engineer with nice people and a pleasant environment. As I was driving to work, I just looked ahead. In front of me appeared an uneventful tunnel, full of nice people and nice things, but I was struggling with this image. By the time I got to work, I realized, “I have no specific goals.” And it really shocked me. I was going to get married and live happily ever after!—goal number one, and I had a nice steady job—that’s goal number two.
For a Depression kid, that’s about as high as you’d reach for. It just seemed so strange to me that, at 25 going on 26, I had no more mature goals than that. It kind of embarrassed me. My fiancée lived far enough away that we could only see each other on weekends. I had all these evenings free and, after I’d write daily letters to her, I set to work to try to figure out what should I have as a goal for professional work.
That was an interesting two or three months. I looked at all the crusades people could join, to find out how I could retrain myself as an economist or a teacher. What did the world need? I realized that the crusades were very complex and hard to manage. Slowly it dawned on me, this business of complexity. It’s a complex problem to pick a goal for your meaningful crusade. It’s a complex problem to organize, finance, and run it. It’s a complex problem to guard against the secondary effects that could be negative if you don’t anticipate them when you formulate your goal.
Then one day, it just dawned on me—BOOM—that complexity was the fundamental thing. Solving any significant problem would also be a complex thing. And it just went “click.” If in some way, you could contribute significantly to the way humans could handle complexity and urgency, that would be universally helpful. I put together, very quickly, the possibilities presented by the very immature computer world that was just emerging at the time. But since I had been an electrical engineer and had worked with radar during the war, I could easily extrapolate. Bingo! I could help people work, and not just with numbers, but with the kind of thinking symbology that we employ now. I could picture people sitting in front of big cathode-ray tube screens with the computer. We could make symbolic arrays to develop new information forms in order to portray for ourselves the thinking that we were doing. And other people could be sitting at similar complexes associated in the same computer center collaborating.
I said, “Wow, tremendous possibilities! Okay, I’m going to go after that.” That was in the early spring of 1951. If a computer could punch cards or print on paper, I just knew it could draw or write on a screen, so we could be interacting with the computer and actually do interactive work. You could engage in collaborative work, with other people at work stations tied to the same computer systems. We could be working independently or collaboratively. I had intuitive certainty that this would work.