In 1961, I wrote a proposal to Harold Wooster, the Director of Information Sciences of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to develop a comprehensive framework for augmenting human intellect. To my surprise, the key administrators were highly imaginative, and open to new and controversial ideas. The assistant, Rowena Swanson, put in a strong vote to fund the project. Wooster, Rowena Swanson’s boss, would put proposals he liked on one side of his desk. The proposals he was dubious about he put on the other side. Swanson would come into the office after he’d gone and move my proposal into the other pile: the favored pile.
The project to articulate a framework for augmenting human intellect was funded by both The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and SRI. The little bit of money from the Air Force let me finally sit down and start writing a description of a new paradigm and form the Augmentation framework. We wrote a proposal about how to start bootstrapping and building a system to help us develop our own thinking and support our own projects. Eventually, it became the first Hypertext system and the first collaborative support system.
The title of the paper was, “Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” It was an attempt to create systems that provide intellectual support. Through the generations, humans have invented all kinds of tools and methods to support intellectual work. We have entire augmentation systems already. Improving the systems we have for supporting intellectual work really deserves explicit cultivation. I tried to outline the ways the new computer system could help us augment our natural abilities. Imagine how important it would be. I see it as analogous to the way a shovel augments small digging projects, while the bulldozer really augments our ability for big projects.
I attempted to explain that you could learn to use computer-supported tools to help develop and improve existing computer tools. I wrote an initial summary report of a project taking a new and systematic approach to improving the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being. A detailed conceptual framework explores the nature of the system. The system is composed of the individual, and the tools, concepts, and methods that match his basic capabilities to solve problems. One of the tools that shows the greatest immediate promise is the computer, when it can be harnessed for direct on-line assistance, integrated with new concepts and methods.
I published the paper in 1962 when J. C. R. Licklider came to the Information Processing Technologies Office of ARPA [Advance Research Projects Agency]. I was, figuratively speaking, standing at the door of ARPA with the Conceptual Framework report and a proposal. How could he in reasonable consistency turn this down, even if it was way out there in Menlo Park? In those days, many in Washington believed there were no decent programmers in the Palo Alto area.
My colleagues at SRI thought I was crazy. To them, hearing about people using computers to communicate through a network to collaborate was crazy talk. They laughed at me when I talked about word processing. “Using computers for writing. Ha! Why would we need that? We have secretaries that do our typing for us.”
They put someone else in charge and gave my team very little access to the equipment SRI bought with the grant. When Licklider finally came for a site visit, two years later, he continued with some funding and made sure we had more access to the computer equipment. But the support level he could offer wasn’t enough to pay for both a small research staff and interactive computer support.
What saved my program from extinction was the arrival of an out-of-the-blue support offer from Bob Taylor, who, at that time, was a psychologist working at NASA Headquarters, then in Washington D.C. Later, Taylor moved to ARPA and became a significant factor in launching the ARPANet. I visited him months before, leaving copies of the Framework report and our proposal. The combined ARPA and NASA support enabled us to equip ourselves and begin developing Version 1 of what evolved into the NLS1 and AUGMENT systems. We were able to get the system robust enough for its debut at the 1968 demo. Then, the following year, we could demo even more features as a new member of the ARPANet. The ARPANet later became the Internet.
1 NLS stands for oNLine System, the computer system built by Engelbart and
his team, that later was called the Augment System