Douglas Engelbart

Interview 1, December 19, 1986

Lowood: Let's start with where you were born, and who your parents were.

ENGELBART: I was born in Portland, Oregon. My father was Carl Louis Engelbart, and mother is Gladys Charlotte Amelia Munson Engelbart. They moved to Portland after they were married, and my older sister, who's three years older, was born in Bremerton, Washington. That's where they met and were married.

Adams: What's your older sister's name?

ENGELBART: Dorianne Vadnais, and they live in Portland, Oregon, still. My mother grew up on a homestead near Redmond, Oregon, and my father grew up in Spokane, Washington.

Adams: You have a brother?

ENGELBART: My brother David is fourteen months younger; he now lives in Sacramento.

Adams: What are they doing? You said in our first talk that they didn't go in the direction that you went, by which I presume you meant scientific or intellectual endeavors. What are their professions?

ENGELBART: My sister was quite artistic, and she married a man who was in architecture school at the University of Oregon. So she and he have had a small architect's office. She does a lot of drafting. They have two daughters.

Lowood: What work did your father do, and what your mother? What was the home like?

ENGELBART: My mother is really really quite sensitive, and was artistic, although she never had any formal training. She had to quit at the end of high school, but she can still quote some of the poetry she learned. She took German, for instance, and she can still say some of the German. So anyway, it stuck and she liked that. So she comes from Scandinavian--Norwegian and Swedish--background. I think her mother came over from Sweden when she was in her early teens. Her father was born in Wisconsin, and his parents came from Norway. The Norwegian thing goes back to my father's mother, who was a first cousin to a very famous Norwegian poet laureate, Nobel prize winner, pretty much a world figure, with all the letter-writing and causes he worked on. We visited Norway, and his home is now a museum. His family is treated with great respect. His name is Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Lowood: And your father, . . ?

ENGELBART: All I know is that his mother was born in Seattle, last name Ernst. A German family. His father was born in Minnesota, and his parents emigrated to the U.S. A large family of Engelbarts; we've known a few of them. I met one of my father's aunts once. We only have track of just a very few of that family. So my father was born in Spokane, and his father was sort of a superintendent operator for a hydrodam. They moved from one dam to another, and they lived near the dams. We'd go visit grandfather, and it was very much fun. We could go down underneath, and see all the big rotating turbines and things. Then my father somehow drifted into being an electrical engineer. He went to college at Washington State. I guess in World War One, he moved to Bremerton to work in the shipyards. That's where he and my mother met. After the war, for some reason he tried being a salesman for a while, but he was no more cut out to be a salesman than I am. Then he ended up getting interested in radio in the late twenties, and started a radio shop in Portland. That's what he was doing up until he died, selling and repairing radios, which was black magic in those days. I was born in 1925.

Lowood: Did your father and his radio store have any influence on you, one way or the other?

ENGELBART: If any, probably negatively. When you're little, it has a mystique; it is intimidating. The thing that really got me into the electronics field was when I was in high school, after World War II started. I'd hear these rumors among the kids about this thing called radar, and that the navy had this program where they would train you by having you study, and you'd go behind closed fences and they'd take the books out of vaults and teach you and then search you when you left, and put the books back in the vaults. It all sounded so dramatic. Whatever the secret stuff, radar was, it intrigued me. So I started saying, "Well, I think I'll sort of prepare, so that when I go into the service, maybe that's what I can do." And that's what I ended up doing.

Lowood: But you had no background, say, with the ham radio clubs, or building a radio?

Adams: Building a crystal set?

ENGELBART: No. I might have tried one or two, but they never worked. (laughter)

Adams: Was it the mystique of it that you think attracted you? Or some budding interested in the technology? When you talk of it, it sounds more like mystery attracted you than the fact that you could communicate, or delve into the deep with it.

ENGELBART: I didn't have any clarity on what I'd like to do, because my father, during the Depression, had to work very hard, and what I remember is his coming home and eating dinner and going back to finish repairing radios. Just the grind. I don't have much of a model of his talking with other technical people, and hearing that sound fascinating, because none of our family friends was of a technical background. I was nine, when he died--that's too young to die. You know, at least in those days, they just didn't have all the kits. During the Depression, I don't know who would have had them, anyway.

Adams: Did you have teachers, or other adults, male or female, who would have provided some sort of role model for you at that time, after your father's death?

ENGELBART: No, I realized some years later when I got to college that I must have been looking for that. I'd become quite disappointed midway through the first semester, in one professor or another, and finally started realizing I would like them to be the father I didn't have, instead of being a professor. In high school, math teachers would pay special notice to me, and encourage me. One English teacher, from some themes I wrote, talked to me quite a bit, "What are you going to do? You could do almost anything you want." And I took those multiphasic personality inventories. I remember I got a high score in everything except conceptualization. There was some test, we were supposed to assemble a bunch of blocks, look at it and assemble it. And somehow, the way the guy explained it to me, I didn't get it, and so it took me a lot longer. So they sort of told me, you shouldn't go into architecture, or anything that requires visualization. (laughter) I didn't take all that very seriously. I sailed through the high school years, and I guess many, even the college years. I was like a peasant looking at the world; it was very simple sort of idea, and hard to picture myself fitting into any of the professions, really. I was interested in walking around; I was a very naive kid. Even two years in the Navy, there were a lot of experiences around, but I was like an observer, soaking up perspective; it wasn't like it was training me to cope.

Lowood: You mentioned the radar training. What did that turn out actually to be? You mentioned what you thought it might be before you went in, but what was it in fact?

ENGELBART: It was pretty challenging to me to learn--you had to learn enough about how it operated, they would explain how it operated with a model. Without knowing the math and the physics underneath it, you could get a model for how it's operating so then you could understand how to service it, and troubleshoot, and repair. It was quite challenging. I would usually be groping for a deeper understanding, all the way through school, than the guys who were smart about getting good grades. It never occurred to me to study just for the grade, you know, to see how best I could pass the test. That's the kind of simple-mindedness I sort of had.

Adams: Were your instructors in the radar school able to give you some of those deeper things?

ENGELBART: Well, once in a while you'd get somebody who had a technical background, but I think anyone that really had technical training was working as communication officers out in the service, or put into research labs, so these were mostly people that they'd just found could train you for what you were supposed to be trained as.

Adams: So you were learning how to service and repair the system, not to really make innovations or changes.

ENGELBART: Right. We were technicians. We weren't aimed for being officers, we were a bunch of enlisted men being technicians. But it was challenging to learn that much, and put it together, keep it in mind.

Adams: Did any improvements occur to you as you were working on devices? "Wouldn't it be interesting if . . ."

ENGELBART: That's a good question. I would tend to say, "Gee, no." But I can't remember. I remember being absolutely fascinated by how "much," and I have to put that in quotes, because in today's perspective, there wasn't that much, but how much went on every cycle of a radar set. The "trigger" would send out a pulse, and waited with his timers running, and then when the different pulses came back, processed and shaped them up, and created different displays on the screen, and let the operator crank cranks and stuff, and move an ellipse around out there so he could calibrate how many miles away things were, running his crank and doing that sort of thing. So you know, things that had to open and shut with an electronic gauge at the right time, and--I thought, boy, as much goes on--most of those radars repeated every sixtieth of a second, and at that time it seemed fascinating how much could go on in a sixtieth of a second. I remember writing a letter to my brother one time after the war, you know, almost as much goes on every sixtieth of a second as goes on in a factory all day. And that really intrigued me. During Pearl Harbor I was still in high school. I graduated from high school and had two years of college before I was drafted. They were deferring people for a while. I was too young to get drafted, and put into these college training programs that they were starting.

Adams: Did you have a burning desire to enlist?

ENGELBART: Not really, because my eyes weren't good enough so I could enlist in anything dramatic. As far as I was concerned, all this radar work sounded just great. From '44 to '46 I was in the Navy. Midway through I'd just finished my training, and had been given some leave, and had come back to Treasure Island, getting ready to be shipped out to the Pacific, with my stomach doing flip-flops, because all the stories were of Kamikaze planes hitting the ships right in the communications center. So, yes, we need lots of radar technicians! (laughter)

Adams: Did you actually go out, then?

ENGELBART: Yeah, I was a year out there, but the interesting thing was that we were all loaded aboard a ship, and the ship backed out of its berth--and this was just south of the Bay Bridge, on the San Francisco waterfront--backed out, started north under the bridge and around, and just as we were passing Chinatown, we were standing up there gulping, and waving good-bye to--nobody was waving at us (laughter). Then we heard lots of whistles and fire crackers and everything else, and finally the P.A. system on the ship says, "The Japanese have just surrendered." It was VJ Day.

Adams: So did the ship turn around and go back?

ENGELBART: We all shouted, "Turn around! let us go back and celebrate!" . . right out into the fog, into the seasickness. We got back just about exactly a year later.

Lowood: I want to get at your reading of Vannevar Bush and what happened to you while you were in the service. How did that all come about?

ENGELBART:: When I got on that ship, we chugged along, and thirty-eight days later, they dropped us off on the south end of the island of Sumar. We waited there, I don't know, a week or two or three; it seemed like a long, long time. Everybody was very relieved; the war was over so they didn't mind, discomfort aside. They finally decided to go some place, so we got on another boat and went on an all day trip to the west, to the island of Laiti, and then were dumped off in another place where we were going to get reshipped. It was while I was on that temporary place at Laiti that I found that Red Cross library. It was in a genuine native hut, up on stilts, with a thatched roof. You came up a little ladder or stairs, and inside it was very clean and neat. It had bamboo poles and was just really nice looking. There were lots of books, and nobody else there.

Adams: Were you surprised to find a current, or a recent issue of publications?

ENGELBART:: I don't know how recent they were.

Lowood: Well, the article was published in '45.

ENGELBART:: I'm pretty sure it was in Life magazine.

Lowood: The Atlantic Monthly was in the fall of '45, late summer of '45.

ENGELBART:: Well, this was like early September out there, so it's hard to imagine that that would have got out there, so it would be interesting to see if that were preceded by the Life magazine thing.

Lowood: Well at any rate, sitting in the middle of the Pacific, what did you get from your reading of Bush?

ENGELBART:: Well, I remember being thrilled. Just the whole concept of helping people work and think that way just excited me. I can remember telling people about it. I never have forgotten that. I knew lots of things I've forgotten. It's easy to forget about all that experience. The last time we talked, you said you really are interested in digging into the different components of what comes together, how ideas come to me. I can remember when that one sort of came into the framework, when I was doing it. It merged, after I had gotten started with other things. In that conceptual framework, I thought of the augmentation system. Then I thought, "Why was this kind of electronic support going to help?" We already had such a huge, huge amount of invention already in the language, and all the customs and everything else. It seemed all of a sudden very deflating, and almost brash to think, "Oh, we're going to do something significant in that whole system." But then I started reflecting about how dramatic this technology could be, and I went back to that other study I'd done, a few years earlier, that I'd called the "philosophy of logic of realization," where I started learning a lot more about the quantitative scale changes. One of the basic things you soon learn is that after a certain degree of quantitative change, you almost invariably go into qualitative change. So you say, alright, among all these artifacts, that this technology offers quantitative change in so many dimensions and in so many places within the system that one would just naturally assume there'd be qualitative changes. hen there was the idea of mapping your concepts into a memory structure inside the computer that could map the structural part of the relationships in ways that linear paper couldn't. That sort of grew out of the little introduction to the AI stuff I'd had earlier. You can make any structure you want.

Lowood: In 1961, you were actually writing the report that got the project started. In say, '45, '46, would you characterize yourself, as you're doing these readings, as something of a tabula rasa as far as these ideas? Were you really just ingesting things, or did you already have some notion of a problem based on some of these? You mentioned being fascinated by the rapidity of some of these electronic devices. Had that already started you moving in a particular direction? Then you gravitated towards articles like Bush's because they fit in with a problem that you had somehow established in your mind. Or were you just picking things up somewhat helter skelter from the outside still?

ENGELBART:: Yeah, I was still the naive drifter.

Adams: Collecting. Were you taking notes, keeping a journal or a diary at that time of your thoughts, and reading?

ENGELBART:: One thing I was doing was keeping vocabulary cards.

Adams: What kind of vocabulary?

ENGELBART:: Oh, just words I didn't know before that.

Adams: Did they cluster in different fields?

ENGELBART:: No, every time I'd run across a word I didn't know, I'd write it down on one side of a card, and the definition on the other. I was probably the only sailor in the Navy that did that. I was stationed at the Philippine Sea Frontier, the Navy headquarters of that whole Philippine area. The vice admiral in cHRGe of that was housed in the communications center. I was stationed there for most of my stay in the Philippines. The Manila Harbor is oriented just like the San Francisco one is, where the mouth of the harbor points east, and Manila is the same place Berkeley and Oakland are. It's a bigger bay, quite a bit bigger. Out near the gate is where Corregidor was, the island. But anyway, the cloud formations in the Philippines were just unbelievable, these huge cumulus clouds that would go up for tens of thousands of feet vertically, and floating around like that, so the sunsets would just be absolutely unbelievable. Where you could see the tops of one of these clouds would just be bathed in white, and the spectrum that would come down to the bottom was dark purple. You'd look back up by a dark purple one silhouetting against the others, and God, it was just unbelievable. So I'd just stop in my tracks and look at that. So one time I went up to the gate, the roadway went along like this, and talked to the shore patrol guys, and said, "I want to go out and watch the sunset." "What, Mac?!" (laughter) So, they got used to me coming there every once in a while, and they'd let me go out, and keep an eye on me. So I could walk across there and sit on the sea wall, and look. There were a lot of different things I was soaking up at the time. In the library there I found a book by William James that just really turned me on too. How to Make the Most of Your Life. I was just soaking up a lot of things.

Lowood: So you came back state-side then, and you went back to Oregon?

ENGELBART:: I went back to Corvallis to finish electrical engineering. What I decided then is that since I had such a good background in electronics, conceptually, that I would take the electric power option, instead of the electronics option, just to balance myself out. I doubt I would have done that if I had had some great vector in mind to pursue. One of the courses when you're a senior is a seminar in which you're supposed to read, and tell the group about interesting things. I remember the one time I saw a description of one of the early computers, and I gave a little talk about it. It was sort of interesting, but in no way did it flash on me that "there's my career." I don't think it taught me very much about how they worked. I just had the general feeling that they're coming. I graduated in '48, so that would have been the '47-'48 school year.

Adams: You mentioned working in a computer lab at Berkeley when you first went there.

ENGELBART:: That was some years later. I left after I got my bachelor's. I took a job at Ames Laboratory. I was there three years before I went to graduate school at Berkeley. By the time I got to Berkeley, I had already made my big commitment.

Lowood: Okay, so let's get you back to the Ames Research Center, because I had a couple questions about that. Before going into the framework, there's a couple things about the general environment there. What kind of work were you doing at Ames?

ENGELBART:: I was recruited as an electrical engineer in a section they called the electrical section. It was a service and support group that helped develop the specifications. If they were making a new wind tunnel for the motors and needed control systems, or a paging system, we would install and maintain that. If somebody wanted some special electronics built that wasn't instrumentation, we would build that. So it was a mixture of maintenance and building, and definitely a service thing. It was an interesting education, but again, it's not what somebody with a burning ambition to be a creator of something, or at least, anybody who understood how the world worked, would choose to do.

Lowood: So it was basically a line job, I guess, is that it?


Lowood: What was the scale of the operation at Ames at that point?

ENGELBART:: Well, they had six or eight big wind tunnels. They had a flight test section that had a link trainer, and they were flying airplanes and testing them. So they were very busy developing, much the same as they are now. I don't know how much they're involved in the space business, but there's a lot of NASA aerodynamics research. It will take thirty thousand horsepower to drive a wind tunnel. And that's big, big electric motors, the kind you don't normally get told about in square inches; big, heavy, advanced things. So starting them, just getting them up to speed is a real problem, because if you just turn on the power, the whole peninsula lights would go dim.

Adams: I've heard stories about that happening. Did they have big computers running the various operations?

ENGELBART:: I'll tell you what a computer was in those days. It was an underpaid woman sitting there with a hand calculator, and they'd have rooms full of them, that's how they got their computing done. So you'd say, "What's your job?" "I'm a computer."


Lowood: One of our interests is the history of the Silicon Valley. Did you have a sense, from the NACA installation there that there was something special about the area in any sense, that there was some kind of concentration of people, perhaps, at this early date?

ENGELBART:: No. It was before they started the Stanford Industrial Park. Hewlett Packard was successful, but still small. Stanford was a small engineering school. There was a man who'd written a handbook on radio engineering that was sort of world famous, so I knew about that.

Lowood: You mean Terman, of course.


Adams: What kind of reading were you doing at that time?

ENGELBART:: Well, I'd been there a couple of months, and somebody mentioned that you could get privileges over at the Stanford Library. So, somehow I wangled a stack permit, and I just spent hours roaming through the stacks.

Adams: Did you gravitate to any particular stack area?

ENGELBART:: I would roam up and down, and find out what's interesting.

Lowood: Sometime in this period, you developed to the point where you had a crisis, in a sense, or you had a desire to make some sort of contribution, right?

ENGELBART:: Oh yeah. I'd been there two-and-a-half years by that time. I was a bachelor, still very shy, but somebody suggested that the way you meet girls is to go folk dancing. An image of folk dancing floated through my mind, and I thought, "Oh my God, what a silly way to go." One guy who'd been a boxer, a fighter, you know, he was divorced, he said, "Come on!" So we went over there, and I took one look at the Palo Alto Community Center, and watched them. It was an intermediate class. I just moved right out there and started dancing with everybody. Pretty soon, I just loved it. Anyway, so then I was a big part of the social life, and that's how I met my wife, at one of those. There was a lot of that, a lot of trying to get people together. There was no family around, so I started organizing people for weekend hiking trips and camping trips, and things.

Adams: Did you have bull sessions about world issues, or intellectual matters?

ENGELBART:: Well let's see, that was a mixture of people I was with, and some of them talked about world issues. I was never the kind that would push everybody into talking about what I wanted to talk about. So if they weren't naturally responding to different feelers I put out about something, or they'd bring up topics, and I'd start asking lots of questions, and getting interested. I guess I was looking around watching people and soaking it up; just still going through this cocoon stage, or something.

Adams: What caused you to begin to emerge, or to want to?

ENGELBART:: Getting engaged. I can just remember one half hour driving to work, one day after I got engaged; that was a turning point.

Adams: Can you tell us about that?

ENGELBART:: Sure. I had all this excitement, "Oh, I'm engaged!" And I was riding to work, and I said to myself, "Well, let's see, I'd better get my mind on work. What am I gonna do today? Oh, well, gee, that's not terribly exciting. Is there anything this week that I can look forward to that's in any way a little bit exciting?" And suddenly I just realized that on ahead of me there were very nice people, it was a good place to work, and stuff like that, but there was no excitement. I could have noticed that two years earlier, but being a bachelor, and busy trying to fill the rest of my life, I guess, it didn't really dawn on me. But it just dawned on me that, "My gosh, what's the problem?" By the time I got to work, I had this realization that I didn't have any more goals, and that getting married and living happily ever after was the last of my goals, which isn't very surprising. The Depression kids were likely to grow up getting a steady job, and getting married and having a family, that's about all. I was literally embarrassed to realize that. I was twenty-five. It was December tenth or eleventh, 1950. I went home that night, and started thinking, "My God, this is ridiculous, no goals. Well, I've got time." For some reason, I just picked that as an explicit, conscious thing to do; I had to figure out a good set of professional goals.

Adams: How did you proceed from that point?

ENGELBART:: Well, I tried to be a little general for a while, to say, "What would be the guidelines, and what are my requirements?" Well, I could earn a lot of money, but I hadn't yet had any perception of what money was worth. I think I was earning three thousand dollars a year then, or something like that. Wage scales were different. But it was a steady job. I finally said, "Well, let's just put as a requirement I'll get enough out of it to live reasonably well." Then I said, "Well, why don't I try maximizing how much good I can do for mankind, as the primary goal, and with the proviso that I pick something in there that will make enough livable income." So that was very clear, very simple as that. So then I started poking around, looking at the different kinds of crusades you could get on. I soon realized that if I wanted to contribute in some maximum way, I'd need to provide some real driving force, or something, because to just go be a soldier in somebody else's crusade is one way you can contribute, but not a way to be satisfied that you're doing the maximum you can. So I tried thinking, "Well, you need to know enough to help organize and drive your goals, so you need special education. So my God, would I have to go back and get retreaded?" If you think about understanding the social and economic picture, and trying to do something on either the sociological side or the economic side, you'd have to go get retreaded. So I said, "Boy, here I am, at the ancient age of almost twenty-six, and I'd be in there competing with kids who had picked that kind of a line when they were eighteen, or something, and so I'd be getting behind. Then if I did get the education in one of those fields, what would make me feel that I could make some unusual commitment? So I'd better first pick a field that's really something, and if I find a set of goals that there's some way I can use the engineering training, then that would be very valuable." But I somehow had the feeling that that wasn't what the world's dominant needs were, more engineering, right then. They didn't have the Peace Corps, but there were people who had been trying to fight malaria in the tropics, or trying to boost food productivity in a some areas, or something like that. I remembered reading about the people that would go in and lick malaria in an area, and then the population would grow so fast and the people didn't take care of the ecology, and so pretty soon they were starving again, because they not only couldn't feed themselves, but the soil was eroding so fast that the productivity of the land was going to go down. So it's a case that the side effects didn't produce what you thought the direct benefits would. I began to realize it's a very complex world. If you can pick a target that if you succeed will indeed produce the benefit you wanted, or it might also have negative side effects that are going to counteract the benefit. You'd have to be very smart to be sure. Well, you can't be sure, so you say, this is the probability that if you succeed, the benefits will be high. Alright, then what's the probability of success? Then you start thinking about all the special difficulties of a crusade. There were also the problems of communicating to enough people to get them to share the goals enough to do the unusual things that a crusade generally demands of the people who work on it. And then there are the problems of raising the money to finance it. You're not selling a product. You have the problems of recruiting good people, finding a way to organize it, and managing it all so it's an effective campaign. It's much easier to organize a corporation, and get a guy who's going to be in cHRGe of production, and who's got a long history of that, than it is to recruit people for a new crusade. I began to realize the probability of your achieving your goal isn't terribly high, and the probability if you do achieve it that it's a success is low. So, you'd better start learning about that. Someplace along there, I just had this flash that, hey, what that really says is that the complexity of a lot of the problems and the means for solving them are just getting to be too much. The time available for solving a lot of the problems is getting shorter and shorter. So the urgency goes up. So then I put it together that the product of these two factors, complexity and urgency, are the measure for human organizations or institutions. The complexity/urgency factor had transcended what humans can cope with. It suddenly flashed that if you could do something to improve human capability to deal with that, then you'd really contribute something basic. That just resonated. Then it unfolded rapidly. I think it was just within an hour that I had the image of sitting at a big CRT screen with all kinds of symbols, new and different symbols, not restricted to our old ones. The computer could be manipulating, and you could be operating all kinds of things to drive the computer. The engineering was easy to do; you could harness any kind of a lever or knob, or buttons, or switches, you wanted to, and the computer could sense them, and do something with it.

Lowood: So the image you had in mind was partly the screen and the idea of a work station of that sort. Where do you think those components came from?

ENGELBART:: Well, I knew about screens, and how you could use the electronics to shape symbols from any kind of information you had. If there was information that could otherwise go to a card punch or a computer printer, that they had in those days, you could convert that to any kind of symbology you wanted on the screen. That just all came from the radar training, and the engineering I'd had, too, knowing about transistors. It's so easy for the computer to pick up signals, because in the radar stuff, you'd have knobs to turn that would crank tracers around and all. So the radar training was very critical, about being able to unfold that picture that rapidly.

Lowood: And as you also have already mentioned, it probably also had something to do with the speed component as well.

Adams: So much could happen in a brief period of time.

ENGELBART:: And I literally at that time didn't know how the computer worked. But I just knew that much, that if it could do the calculations and things, it could do what I wanted.

Lowood: So you linked the image of the work station with the thought of a computer?

ENGELBART:: Oh, absolutely.

Adams: But you were thinking beyond calculation capabilities of a computer.

ENGELBART:: I never really did go very strongly in for any of the numeric manipulations at all. I'm practically helpless in that domain.

Adams: Would you have it called something else, then, than a computer?

ENGELBART:: No, I didn't worry about what I should name it. It's just different from the computers at Ames, the women doing calculations.

Lowood: So you're situated in the early fifties, and you have this vision; what steps could you take to find a niche for yourself, given what was available at that time?

ENGELBART:: Just to complete the vision. I also really got a clear picture that one's colleagues could be sitting in other rooms with similar work stations, tied to the same computer complex, and could be sharing and working and collaborating very closely. And also the assumption that there'd be a lot of new skills, new ways of thinking that would evolve. Within a matter of hours, that image came, and I just said, "AHA!" I very rarely make my decisions in such a definite way. That one just unfolded and went "Bam!," and I just said, "Boy, that's it. That just fills all kinds of different needs." So then I assumed I'd need to learn, and I'd need to find some university where they were working with computers. The thought of actually applying for graduate school had never occurred to me, and I felt a lot of trepidation about that. That's when that book, Make the Most of Your Life came up again. Everything has a first step, and you do that, and then you can do a next step, and a next. Well, the first step was write to the universities.

Adams: Where were the universities that you contacted?

ENGELBART:: Well, I didn't know very much about what they'd be doing, and I figured if I applied that I could go learn. So I applied to Stanford and Berkeley. And they both went through the process of saying, "Well, get your transcripts forwarded, and all of that." Then they both accepted me, and I didn't think anything of it. I didn't know that any universities would have a line of people waiting. So when I went to talk to both of them, and I found Berkeley had this computer program. There was some engineering society that had a meeting in which the professor Paul Morton gave a talk about it, and I went up there and sat, and afterwards went up, as shy as you could be, just asking if there was any space for more people, that I was interested in it. I didn't know anything about how they liked to recruit students; I just started talking to him. It was an easy choice, because they already had something going, building a computer, and Stanford had never even heard of it.

Lowood: Could you just briefly describe the project? Was this the Caldex project?

ENGELBART:: Yes. It was something sponsored by the Navy, and it had been proposed by Paul Morton, and an astronomy professor, who was in the background during the years. I never met him, or talked to him much. Morton was the effective head of the project, and it had been going since I think 1947 or '48. It was one in which the memory would be on a magnetic drum, and built with vacuum tubes. Something that no computer today tries to do, but something the very early ones would do, is that instead of just a string of bits holding the big binary number, this clustered the bits into sets of four, and each four was coded as a decimal number. There are sixteen combinations of those four, but they would only use ten of them. So there'd be four sets of vacuum tubes; each vacuum tube has a double triode inside of it, and a flip-flop circuit in it like that, so these four flip-flops would store and they'd have to have other vacuum tubes that would be used to transfer the state of this set of four over to the next one, a shift. This would be on panels that were exposed, so you could go in and work on it. The tubes would be burning out all the time. I think it worked the magnificent pulse rate of about 250,000 pulses a second. In some of the seminars, people would be talking and questioning, "Do you think we could ever get up to a million pulses a second? Is it just engineering?" And the magnetic storage technology was not so dense, so that drum was about this big around and this tall [gestures, with a lot of fixed heads on it. It stored far, far less information than that much surface area would today. I think it took a sixtieth of a second to spin around, or something like that.

Adams: What kind of problems was it working on?

ENGELBART:: Oh, getting it working was the problem.

Adams: That was the problem, designing it?

ENGELBART:: After I had left, the word was that they finally got it working.

Adams: What was going on elsewhere with that same kind of technology? Were there other universities doing similar work?

ENGELBART:: Yeah. At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, they had projects going, and MIT and Harvard. The Bureau of Standards was busy trying to build one. And the Bureau of Standards finally took one of their computers, and gave it or sold it to UCLA. So UCLA had the very first working computer on the West Coast. We all went down to look at it. It was a very novel kind of storage. Ordinary cathode ray tubes are five or seven inches in diameter. But it turns out if you bombard a place with a spot of light, and if you adjust some of the internal voltages just right, then cut it off, it'll leave that place cHRGed. Later you can go sample the cHRGe. The cHRGe slowly leaks off, so you have to go regenerate it. But there were all these little tubes with these little glows, and that was like the physical memory. It was much faster than a magnetic drum. Magnetic cores hadn't been yet invented, not working ones, at any rate.

Lowood: You were a graduate student working towards your degree, and at the same time working on Morton's project?

ENGELBART:: No, I think I was only employed in there a matter of months before I decided that it would be better for me to get going on my studies, and not spend time working. I still had some GI Bill of Rights dollars, so I stopped working in that lab. But they were giving seminars about computers, so I continued to be actively involved in all of that.

Lowood: Did you get something from the work for Morton?

ENGELBART:: Oh, sure. You mean for my own research?

Lowood Yes.

ENGELBART:: Well, very quickly I got the picture of how a computer works. And I remember, I was supposed to start correcting some drawings or something like that of a shift register, and I was trying to figure out this thing, how it works, and all of a sudden, "Bingo!" It just unfolded very quickly, how shift registers worked. Then the feeling of mystique just vanished, and I just felt a lot more confident that I could some understand how they worked.

Adams: Were there applications going through your head? In terms of your flash, was it something specific that you wanted to do in the work station?

ENGELBART:: Well, I was interested all the time in how, instead of just doing numeric computations, how it could manipulate symbols. I was even conjecturing how I could connect it up to make a teaching machine. So I found people in the psychology department who said, "Oh, that sounds very interesting." But the computer people just weren't interested--I don't know whether they were insulted to think of using it for such a mundane thing, or what. Then I looked into symbolic logic. That began to intrigue me a lot, to realize that the computer could manipulate the symbolic logic, and really help you in the kind of reasoning that is formal enough to employ that kind of symbolism.

Adams: No one was doing work in that field, with a computer?

ENGELBART:: You have to realize that the best computer that was available had a mean free time to failure of five minutes. Yet there were still astronomers, mathematicians and engineers that just couldn't wait, because in that time, they could still do a lot. But the alternative was all these women punching hand calculators. The kind of things I was thinking about didn't turn them on, because the pressure behind building computers in those days was to support numeric calculations. Then they began thinking about business applications for data processing, and all of that, and that sort of started evolving. That's what captured the commercial people.

Adams: But it was still number crunching.

ENGELBART:: Yeah, essentially.

Lowood: How did you get through the curriculum?

ENGELBART:: See if what I say is in the right direction. It just began to dawn on me that I probably could do for research the kind of things along my major vector. If that wasn't what interested people, and if your faculty aren't interested, or they're negative about it, you're doomed. Is that what you meant?

Lowood: Yeah.

ENGELBART:: I managed to shift the required curriculum in some way from taking advanced differential equations, so I could take courses in the philosophy department in logic. Tarski would come in sometimes, and help out in class with another guy who had a good name around the world in symbolic logic. I was the only engineer in there.

Adams: Who was that?

ENGELBART:: Benson Mates, I think his name was.

Lowood: So, you are what we would call today an individually designed major. That was what you were trying to do within the confines of the program. And that worked?

ENGELBART:: Well, it got me by, but it didn't work very well, as far as what the professors thought about it. Morton didn't understand why I wanted to do that. Not only just not interested, he was negative; that it would be a waste, and he wasn't interested.

Adams: Did people in philosophy see what you were trying to get at?

ENGELBART:: You know to them, it's such an alien thought, about any kind of mechanisms being brought into this pure kind of stuff. People in liberal arts usually get their hackles up. They were very negative about computers anyway. It just sounded like you were trying to rupture something about what the human processes ought to be.

Adams: To mechanize it.

ENGELBART:: There was quite a bit of that. We didn't particularly travel in circles of all engineering graduate students, by any means. The English Lit. majors were very eloquent. It was fun to talk about lots of things, but when I'd talk about my ideas, they would say, "Well excuse me, my glass is empty." (laughter)

Adams: What kept the dream, or the vision within you?

ENGELBART:: Well it was part of my personality; you might almost say it was a defect. I've been learning a lot about myself during all this cancer treatment, it's pretty interesting. Growing up without a father, through the teenage years and such, I was always sort of different. Other people knew what they were doing, and had good guidance, and had enough money to do it. I was getting by, and trying. I never expected, ever, to be the same as anyone else. Sitting there in high school one day, I probably was a senior, I just happened to look up and down the aisle. I realized I had the only old, battered hightop shoes in the bunch. My one pair of shoes. Not only that, mine was the only one that had spots of dried milk and cowshit on them! (laughter) And I was a senior before that dawned on me.


ENGELBART:: As for as completing the work for my doctorate, it really became clear in a disappointing way that I couldn't do what I wanted to do. Then I realized I'd invested enough already, and that it would be worth finishing the doctorate for whatever I had to do, so I started casting around for what kind of research topic I could do. I realized it would probably have to be in the engineering, the technical side. I was sitting in a study hall one day, probably just one or two of us in there, trying to think of what I could invent. I started thinking, "What if I could find some new kinds of bi-stable phenomena by which I could make electronic components out of?" For a number of years from then on, for another decade perhaps, it was a very common thing, people trying to find all sorts of weird things that you could get something into one or two states it would stay, and then there were different ways you could trigger it back and forth.

Adams: Alchemy? No, I guess in alchemy you want it to stay in one state.

ENGELBART:: There actually are chemical things that stay in two different states. When I was in the Navy, tuning radar transmitters, you have to keep tuning, stage after stage. The antenna puts out lots of jolt. The antennas are zanging away with lots of high frequency voltage, to radiate. So you go up near the antenna post, and you get these little two-cent neon bulbs; they're the same kind nowadays they use in little tiny glow lights. You can just hold it near, and the high voltage field will turn on the gas glow. Then you can be tuning it for the brightest glow, and it's a very simple, direct light. So I was tuning it one day, and I realized it would break down, and then you could de-tune it till it gets dimmer and dimmer and dimmer, and you could go quite a ways down before it'd go out. And I thought, "Oh, that gas has bi-stable active flip-flops." I remember explicitly noticing that someplace out in the Philippines when I was tuning some things like that.Suddenly that came back to me. They were already using gas discHRGed with electric current flowing through the gas from electrodes inside it to be bi-stable, and they knew that those bulbs were that way. People were trying to use them or other kinds of things like that for counters and such. Suddenly I wondered if that would have any advantage in using high frequency excitations. Then I got the idea of the shift register. So that's what I did, was to start building those. It took me months. You could do digital things with this other phenomenon. I had to learn how fast you could do it, and what were the best mixes of gas, and were there any techniques you could use to make it safer, or to do more than just shift. I ended up making little coils of bare glass tubing that I could put with little wires around the outside of it. They'd have two electrodes down at the beginning to control input and the rest were outside to control the shifting. But I could get patterns along that of glow and no glow, and that whole pattern could just go shifting around.

Adams: The proposal for that work, what form did it take, when you went to the faculty person who was to be your sponsor? Or did you go to several faculty people in search of a sponsor for that? Did you have an apparatus?

ENGELBART:: I can't remember about proposing it. There was one physical laboratory in which they were working with high vacuum traveling wave tubes. The skilled technician that supported them said, "Sure, I could make things like that for you." So I was packed off in a corner with that for months. Totally isolated, there was no one else. I got my Ph.D. doing that. It wasn't a very elegant thing, and I was by that time saying, "I've just gotta get out of here." We'd just had our twins, our second and third daughters.

Adams: How was the vision, or the dream, still percolating in your head? Or did you put it off and say, "I'm going to do this now."

ENGELBART:: No, I thought, "Now I've got to do this to get out of here, because it's silly to waste the investment of the first four years of graduate school and not get a Ph.D., because I'm sure a Ph.D. will help me settle into doing the research later."

Adams: So there wasn't a direct relationship at all?


Lowood: So you have a Ph.D. in E.E. And what year did you get it?

Adams: '55?

ENGELBART:: I think that was it.

Lowood: Your thesis advisor was Woodward?

ENGELBART:: John Woodward, or rather Woodyard.

Lowood: Woodyard, yeah, okay. He was at Stanford before. It wasn't immediately clear to me how you got from gas discHRGe to a traveling wave.

ENGELBART: That was a place where they would have the equipment and the know-how. The technician could make the gaseous tubes for me. He was blowing their tubes and making those tubes from scratch.

Adams: Just a mechanical link.


Lowood: Because Woodyard was one of the klystron guys, I recall. He worked at Stanford, in fact, in the late forties, and he had done some klystron work at that time. I guess that would make sense, because that would be the right group to be in at Berkeley. It wasn't an exact fit. It was close enough for you to get through.

ENGELBART: Yeah, well he was sort of bewildered by what I was trying to do, because he wasn't a digital guy, and Morton wasn't that kind of technology guy.

Lowood: So, you got the Ph.D., and you decided to go back to the valley, or were you considering a number of options at that time?

Adams: You taught for a period, didn't you?

ENGELBART: Yes, I was teaching, and I'm trying to figure out . . . Was is '56 or '55?

Adams: It was '56 or so when you started the Digital Techniques.

ENGELBART: I have a feeling that it was '56 that I got my degree, because I remember telling people it took me five years. I stayed and taught; I think I was an acting assistant professor. I may well have been there an extra year. Isn't that funny that now that's foggy in my mind? We had these three little kids. The first one was sixteen months older than the twins. It was just a terribly fatiguing home life. I'd have to get home by 5:15. If I was twenty minutes late, we couldn't catch up. (laughter) The whole business about getting those kids ready for bed, getting them fed, and getting them to bed, and then we'd have to go to bed ourselves as early as we could, which wasn't that early, because they'd always wake up at night. You'd have to get to them like that, because one would wake up the rest of them. It took both of us an hour an a half to get them all back to sleep again. And boy, it was just grave fatigue.

Adams: Did you have friends, or family support at that time?

ENGELBART: No, there was nobody like that, and on the salary we were paying. We'd get a little bit of help once in a while.

Adams: Were you in student housing?

ENGELBART: No, that year somebody who'd just graduated from law school got a year or so back in Washington D.C. and had to rent his house in a hurry, so we had a house way up on the Skyline. It was really nice, although we could hardly enjoy it. I was hunting for a way to capitalize on these inventions. I guess at the same time, I was talking to some recruiters. Ah yes, that was an interesting experience.

Lowood: Recruiters from companies?


Adams: Because of your inventions, which were patented at this time?

ENGELBART: Not particularly that, no. I had begun before the patent. They were just interested in bodies with Ph.D.s. RAND I think was ascending very rapidly as a very high-priced, high-technology think tank for the missile business. They decided to go for everybody, so they came up and wanted to talk to me. They asked me if I'd come and see them. I didn't apply to go talk to recruiters. "Oh, all right." I came in, and they were asking me if I would be interested in their job, and I said, "No." "Why?" I remember I said, "I think that already all the technology guys coming out get hired to go into missiles, and I think there are plenty. I would rather do something else. You're not going to have trouble hiring anybody. You won't have very many like me." This was a challenge. So he called up somebody else that afternoon to try to convince me how good of an opportunity it was, and I just stuck to it. I said, "No hard feelings, but I'm just not interested."

Adams: What did interest you, then? What "got" you?

ENGELBART: The University of Washington tried to hire me and I said "No, I guess I'm really not ready to stay in universities, because I can't do what I want to, and it would be too hard a life." General Electric Research Labs tried to hire me, and that was more exciting, but still when I'd go talk to them, the things I really wanted to do just obviously were too alien to bring up. I began to realize that probably if I could get enough money and be independently wealthy, or independent, I could stay in a university and say, "Okay, I can be an acting assistant professor," and then I could do this research. I began to think seriously about capitalizing on these inventions. That led to forming this company and getting the backing from the Hale brothers.

Lowood: The work that you'd done on the gas discHRGe devices, how did those devices compete with the other things that you knew were available at that time?

ENGELBART: The only things that were available were the vacuum tube technology and a few simple gas discHRGe things that work with internal electrodes. They didn't figure a very prominent place in the world of computer hardware. It looked as though it could potentially be something valuable to offer. There was the solid state phenomenon, but you'd pay seventy-five dollars for an experimental transistor then, and it was likely to crap out in some unknown number of hours. There wasn't any guarantee.

Lowood: Shockley's lab got off the ground in '55. Did you have any contacts with them at all, any awareness of what was going on there?


Lowood: Because Shockley was talking about selling nickel transistors. That still hasn't been achieved. That was one express purpose behind the setting up of the Shockley Transistor Labs. So there was some movement.

ENGELBART: I understood that there'd be a lot of research on equipment like that, but it was still a question about whether to do it. But in that year, '56-'57 when we were actually working on it, I began to realize in reading and just talking to people how much resource there was lying behind the semiconductors. There was similarity between the plasma phenomenon and the semiconductors and my gas discHRGe. There were a lot of problems to define and speed up the technology. I had to learn how to produce it. The problem only starts when you learn how to make the gadgets in the laboratory. It would take a lot of capital to get this out in the world. As I began to get a little more educated about the whole process, I began to feel like this probably wasn't going to work, although there was some potential for it being used for displays and signs and things like that, for an interesting effect. The backers were interested in that. But finally in the spring, the mutual feeling got high enough that they wanted some other assessment done, so we talked about it. They approached SRI and they sent up a team of people to look over it. They wrote a report that essentially substantiated that the semiconductor was more efficient. They gracefully quit.

Lowood: Whom did you contact, and in roughly what order, to get backing?

ENGELBART: It led up to forming the corporation. I guess I must have talked to somebody in some company. I really can't remember who I first went to, but I learned soon that they didn't want to compromise the position that they'd get in if they talked to someone before he'd written disclosures and had his patent processing underway solidly. There's a lot of trouble a company can get into if I were to go away and later say they stole my invention. So it just isn't worth it to them. They don't want to even talk about it. Then I realized I'd better learn about the patenting. I assumed it'd cost a lot. I tried calling up some patent attorneys, and one said, his first name was Manfred, "Oh, come on down and talk to me." I learned later he liked to sort of speculate some. He would try to help people to launch new ventures, to help them. As a patent attorney he could get involved and contribute his expertise as part of the investment deal without having to put forward the money for some piece of the action. So I remember his saying he has a fond place in his heart for two kinds of people: ministers and college professors. So he would be really interested in helping me. He was a good egg.

Adams: How did you find him?

ENGELBART: I can't remember. It might be that somebody else at Berkeley who had some patent thing had been with him. He took a quick look at all the things and realized that they were very complex compared to the relatively simple things that often came through to get patented. He'd have to learn a lot in order to write up the patents, and it'd be pretty expensive. But then he started encouraging me that there could be a way. At some point, whether it was the first meeting or not, he suggested the idea of forming a corporation and giving him some piece of it. He would then write up the patents, and they would then belong to the corporation. He would help us get incorporated, and then after a while we could approach somebody to buy the company, patents and all. Then he'd have ownership of it, and he'd profit from that. I think that that probably was when Digital Techniques was born.

Adams: Your partners in Digital Techniques, were they involved in any way in the devices, or the patents prior to the company? Did your association begin before or after this point?

ENGELBART: Well at some point in there, when it was ready to go, I think, and I needed to try to build some things, I needed help. So I approached these two guys whom I had known--they were graduate students still--and they both dropped out of graduate school. Later we recruited somebody who'd just gotten his master's degree that had been in one of my classes. So we all spent the next winter working on the basement.

Adams: How was the match, in terms of expertise, and interests?

ENGELBART: Well, one guy clearly wanted to be the business man. He wasn't a technology guy. The other guy was more a hands-on technology guy. But the two senior guys, neither of them was sort of the kind of physics guy that would jump into some new phenomenon and gobble it up. They both wanted to get involved in it, and for whatever I understood then about managing and organizational groups, which was very limited, it seemed like everybody could pull along, and you needed that many.

Lowood: I think we'd better backtrack a second. Digital Techniques was formed as a result of your interaction with the patent attorney, okay? And that would have been, then, winter of '57?

ENGELBART: No, that would have been probably spring or summer of '56.

Lowood: What the company consisted of when it started, so to speak, was your intellectual capital, the devices that you were familiar with, and the inventions that you had in mind. So then in summer of '56 was the first step in the company to get the patents from those ideas?

ENGELBART: Right, and some place late summer or early fall. Let's see, we had to move out of our place up on top of Berkeley hills probably at the end of the first year, which would have been like July, or August. So we knew that we wanted a place big enough, to rent. There must have been the plan in mind, because this was a very large house.

Lowood: The "we" is your family now, not the company.

ENGELBART: Yes, excuse me. What I'm trying to remember is if when we rented this large house, whether it was just for the family, or whether I was already looking forward to finding a place where we would be able to set up a lab. I can't really remember accurately.

Lowood: It was set up to be at first a garage operation essentially, right? Or was there already thought of moving quickly beyond the patents to some sort of small manufacturing?

ENGELBART: Well, we knew we'd have to get some working devices first. As soon as we got working with Hale, we became prototype builders. We needed a building of the garage or basement kind, lowest overhead possible.

Adams: The Hale connection, how was that made?

ENGELBART: I was looking for people who wanted to back the company then. The attorney connected me with one or two people, and I guess he talked with others, but that just fell flat. I remember one guy from the financial district in downtown San Francisco that met me for lunch, because the patent attorney somehow got his name. He called him up and convinced him he ought to talk to me. We never got around to really talking turkey about this. After lunch the guy said thank you, and left. Now I understand that it took him probably fifty seconds to realize how naive I was about any of the business prospects of this, and everything else like that.

Adams: Who paid for lunch?

ENGELBART: He did. (Laughter) But Hale was a friend of my wife's, an older man. I had some college friend, and the Hale had been his friends in college. One or two of them were involved in their own business venture. He was on a board of directors. So he persuaded him to talk to me. That guy got turned on to Sunday supplement technology things. I took over some ordinary computer system modules and a few of the gas registers, and he got so entranced by this computer system module that he took that and ran off to his cousin's. Somehow it appealed to them all. I very honestly tried to tell them that that's the sort of standard, you know, I borrowed that from someplace else just to show you how the regular plug-ins worked and demonstrated some of the things we could potentially do.

Adams: Good instinct on your part to take those, I guess.

ENGELBART: What I learned later is that they were into all kinds of ventures. They were the second generation in the Hale brothers' store that had been there. Their fathers were the brothers, maybe they were second cousins--they had been in San Francisco a long time, and gotten quite wealthy. They had their money in a lot of things. These guys were putting money into lots of things, so they'd pulled out twelve million dollars for some venture, and they'd only needed ten, so they had two sitting there and they were trying to put it into something. It would take them a while in those days to invest it. To take a flyer on something that altogether might cost them less than a hundred thousand dollars, just for something, and the tax deductible, was no problem.

Lowood: So you had a backer at that point.


Lowood: Had there been other companies you'd approached--a Bay Area company, Hewlett Packard, or Ampex, any of the companies around that you had also approached?

ENGELBART: I think that must have been when I approached Hewlett Packard, along in there too, because I know I didn't have the patents ready, and I wasn't encumbered by a company, and partners then.

Lowood: So, what happened with HP?

ENGELBART: The director of research, his name was Barney Oliver, was very close to Hewlett and Packard. They had been old friends. He was the one I approached. He listened to it all and said, "Well, these are some interesting phenomena, and maybe we can harness them in different ways in our business, and so would it be alright if we made some deal about patents, that if it's used, then you get some royalties." I said, "Yeah, that's fine." They don't lose much by offering an employee or somebody that, but the question that arose then pretty soon was that I'd say, "Well, they're not all applied for, there're a bunch of them sitting in my head, I just don't have time to write down." And he said, "Well, I don't know what to do about that; if you're an employee, you have to sign a basic disclosure agreement." Then he said, "Maybe you could talk to Hewlett and Packard," so I talked with each one of them. Hewlett was just trying to sell me on the company and the opportunity, and all that. He was interested in trying to advise me about starting the business. I remember him saying, "Don't be afraid to give generous portions to people that come in with you, because there should be enough for everybody." I guess that sowed the seed for later work with Hale. Then when I talked to Dave Packard, and I told him the problem that was still hanging me up, and he said, "Well, maybe we could work out a deal like this: Say we hire you, and those things that you've disclosed are your rights, and if we use them, then we pay you the royalty. Everything you can disclose in the first six months of your employ, whether you thought about it during that time, or brought it in, is yours. And everything after that is ours." Just a beautiful, simple, very fair solution. And I said, "Sold." It was just very neat. Then he told Barney that that's the way it figured out. He said to me, "Well, it may not seem so simple, by the time the lawyers get through it, but we ought to have it basically like that." Ever since then, I remember that's what a good business man can do, just figure out a good solution.


ENGELBART: I was driving home one night, and had gotten part way there. I was thinking, I had been assuming that I wanted to get into digital techniques, computer techniques, and that their instrumentation would probably lead into that too. It'd all be a natural direction. If I could work out their devices it would be a good chance for me to try to launch the kinds of applications I was interested in. But I'd better check, so I stopped. It was a nickel phone call then for long distance from Redwood City. I called, got Barney Oliver, and told him, "This is what I'd been assuming, I just thought I'd better check with you. I am assuming you are going to go into digital technology, aren't you?" And he says, "Not a chance." "Oh." And I said, "Well, I should have found that out earlier, and I'm sorry to take your time, because I just can't then go ahead." "Oh, well, that's too bad, okay, so long." Click.

Lowood: So they had no desire to expand away from the analog instrumentation that they specialized in into the digital area?


Lowood: Do you know when it was they did go into computers? It was about the late sixties, probably.

ENGELBART: I don't know.

Adams: Have you talked to Hewlett or Packard, or any of those principals since?

ENGELBART: No, I haven't. One time a year and a half or two ago I was in a place buying chlorine for my swimming pool, and by God, there was Barney Oliver, buying something. I thought there was no way he remembered me, but I half-way thought about talking to him about that.

Lowood: Okay, well, Digital Techniques is off the ground. At this time you were still located in the East Bay, in Berkeley?

ENGELBART: Yes, North Oakland, just near the border.

Lowood: So your contacts would still have been primarily with Berkeley, not with Stanford.


Lowood: What can you say about where you perceived Stanford to be as far as computers went? We're a few years beyond when you studied graduate school. Had there been any progress at Stanford?

ENGELBART: I have a feeling that George Forsythe by then was starting. He was essentially just building a computation support service. I'd have to talk with other people to try to piece together when different things emerged.

Lowood: Did you try to hook into Stanford at all?

ENGELBART: Yeah, the next year, in '57, when Digital Techniques was going to close down. I wrote a letter, outlining the background I'd had, and saying I could help teach courses in computer design, and help with the laboratory and all, because of the experience I'd had there, and wondered if they had any interest and opening. Did I ever tell you about the letter I got back from Dean Pettit? It was a very short, very polite letter. It said, "Thank you for your interest," and then explained that since Stanford was a small school and was striving for the highest quality academic disciplines, and since computers were definitely a service activity, that there was no planned possibility for them to bring in computers into the engineering curriculum.

Lowood: So Joe Pettit was giving you the "steeples of excellence" line, but computers weren't one of the steeples at that time, was basically what he was saying.

ENGELBART: I guess so.

Lowood: So you were still pretty much going in your own direction, but you weren't really pursuing directly the framework that you had set out in the early fifties.

ENGELBART: After the Ph.D., I hoped I could get money from patents so I could be more independent of what other people thought, and perhaps stay in the university and do what I wanted. After the SRI study, the Hale brothers politely said, "We have to separate ourselves from you now." They actually gave us a week extra pay, and gave us all the equipment; they didn't have to do that. Then we started trying to see if that could launch our own company. Three of us we were farming out as consultants, and the fourth was there during the week trying to get a business plan, and Saturdays we'd all get together and meet about that. That was more exciting.

Lowood: I think a good place for us to start next time would be with SRI, and you're getting there. But I do have one question to sort of maybe wrap up this session. The general picture is pretty much of an individual; the things you do pretty much are individual campaigns, both the framework that you've described for your vision of some kind of information technology and also this hardware work, as well. But in addition to that, I know you were involved with this professional group on electronic computers, and I guess the IRA. Was there any kind of budding network of people that you were communicating with, '55, '57, and that time frame, that was expanding your knowledge of the field, or perhaps giving you new things to think about?

ENGELBART: Well, I definitely was expanding more in the work. I'd found when I was an undergraduate that when I organized things at school, I ended up being president of all the engineering student body. It's kind of fun that I did it. I enjoyed that, and I did meet more people. When you meet people, you start learning more about what they're interested in. But my sense is that none of that did more than just extend my awareness of what was going on in the computer activity. None of it had any bearing, really, on interactive computers, work stations, text manipulation, etc.

Lowood: This professional group on electronic computers, were there regular meetings?


Lowood: You would talk about primarily hardware developments, or componentry, that sort of thing?

ENGELBART: Programming, seeking speakers. We were organizing, and sifting through what would be good speakers. Being a local group, we didn't sponsor any conferences or anything.

Lowood: Was there anything interesting happening again at around that time as far as programming went, anything out of the ordinary in the mid-fifties? You had FORTRAN, things like that beginning to happen, of course. But what I'm getting at, really, is something that might have triggered some ideas as far as application type programming. Were there discussions of things--you mentioned banking. Were there concepts having to do with office automation that were interesting?

ENGELBART: Well, SRI had had this program that was a banking support system, but in no sense would you call it office automation, you know, the teller's sitting there cranking away; I don't think anyone thought of it as automating the office, or automating the banking process.

Lowood: So these were strictly what we would call today database applications and nothing beyond that.


Adams: Are there individuals you remember in the group, interactions that stick in your memory, or people who are still in the field, contacts that you maintained?

ENGELBART: Oh, I imagine they all stayed in the field. One of them was my neighbor. We rotated offices. My neighbor, Dick Tanaka, worked at Lockheed. He was a very good guy; he was part of that. Then when you'd kind of get through to that, you could start joining national groups. I told people, "No, I'm going to back out from this because I've got this mission I want to do, and that's going to take all my energy, and I don't want to get roped in." So Dick stayed with it and became national chairman of APEX or something, sometime back in there. I'm sure I met people, but I don't remember anything singular in that time at all.

Lowood: Let's see, the kind of things maybe beginning with some of the reasoning programs--Alan Newell was at Rand, and some of the things were happening with the beginning of artificial intelligence. That would have been around this time. The Dartmouth conference was maybe '57.

ENGELBART: I met those guys in '59, or someplace in there. I'd read something about it. But I don't remember anything particularly outstanding about it before then. When I got into the framework, then it got interesting, and I followed up with more talk with them. At one time they paid my way to come down to Rand, because they were writing a proposal to the Defense Department to build a very special purpose, very large, superfast machine designed to run their LISP processing, to do artificial intelligence processing. They seemed pretty convinced that when that got going, it would be able to do such dramatic things that it would make obsolete all kinds of other uses of computers, because it would do its reasoning. So since we'd been acquainted before, and I'd been in hardware things, they thought I might be a good recruit to be in cHRGe of the development of the machine.

Lowood: Is this John McCarthy you mean?

ENGELBART: Oh, no. The Newell, Shaw, and Simon were very separate from McCarthy. They were centered around Carnegie and Rand. John was MIT, and BBN. I think that was before he came out to Stanford, I'm not really sure when he did.

Lowood: He came out in '62.

ENGELBART: Oh yes, that was before. But anyway, I listened to all that, and said, "Well, that sounds very exciting. You know, I'm not sure I'd be the best guy to actually design it, but it'd be very challenging, very interesting, and it would be appealing as an intellectual pursuit. But I have this other thing. . . ." Sounds familiar? (laughter) They were saying, "Yeah, but anything you'd want to do, interacting with a computer, this'll be so smart, it will just obviate almost anything else you want to do." And I said, "Well, I don't really buy that. It seems to me no matter how smart it is, there are all the other kinds of things. You've had lots of people get excited about this technology, and nobody else that I know is doing what I'm doing, and it will be important to be ready. This didn't go over well.

Lowood: Newell, at that time was getting away from one application programs to think about the really general systems.

ENGELBART: The general problem solver.

Lowood: The general problem solver, exactly. So it wasn't quite a fit.

ENGELBART: No, that didn't fit for me. But I certainly acknowledged the value of learning their concepts. Just about a few months before I published that '62 report Rand held a summer study group for heuristic programming. I can't remember how much it cost, but they got people from around the country who wanted to come to have a six-week class, I think it was six weeks. So I went down there and got more acquainted with them, and with Herb Simon, and met some of the other guys. I think I'd already met Feigenbaum, but he was there, and Bert Raphael, and Dan Bobrow. And Einar Steffarud, and some guy who was just developing Simscript, a simulation language. It was an interesting mix of people there.

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