Douglas Engelbart, the automobile and other analogies

In 2000 Stanford University Press published a book by Thierry Bardini — Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. I really regret that I read it only now, because it is a proper book for the fans of the Mother Of All Demos and admirers of Engelbart.

Bardini writes about the augmentation “crusade”, he documents in detail processes and arguments that preceded the birth of NLS and what happened after, the work and life in the Augmentation Research Center, ARC and its relations with other institutions, Engelbart’s correspondence with SRI and ARPA bosses and his colleagues, fights for mouse buttons, the Chord Keyset — though I knew the facts, I devoured the book like a thriller.

But before you hurry to order the book, you should know that I also cried in the end of each part of the NLS presentation film. It can be seen on youtube and on the Stanford Mouse site.

Anyway, in the beginning of the book Bardini states:

The history of how the computer and its relationship to its human users was imagined is a dance of metaphors.

That’s clear. What i didn’t know is that Engelbart himself was a good dancer. And as it seems a pioneer in thinking about computers in terms of vehicles.

On page 18 you can find a quote by Engelbart from the very beginning of the 60’s on his advanced metaphor:

The man-machine interface that most people talk about is the equivalent of the locomotive-cab controls (giving a man better means to contribute to the big system’s mission), but I want to see more thought on the equivalent of the bulldozer’s cab (giving the man maximum facility for directing all that power to his individual tasks).

In the end of the book his words from 1986 appear, they make the first comparison look especially weird and the work of his life really dramatic.

After 1976 […] the AUGMENT system stayed alive in a sort of funny dumb way, often like taking a bulldozer in to help people work in their back yards.
(p. 214)

Thinking about the ways to augment the human body, Engelbart observed a man in his automobile and came to conclusion that

the human foot was a pretty sensitive controller of the gas pedal in cars
(p. 113)

This observation led him to work on the Knee Control (see the picture below), an input device with great erotic potential. How would our offices look today, how we would look and dress, and move, and communicate, if knee control and not the mouse would have been developed further?


Another device that was left behind in the world of personal computers was the Chord Keyset. It allows the user to enter characters or form commands by pressing several keys at the same time.

In the beginning of his research Engelbart had to fight for the idea to work on it, because his colleagues and bosses saw it as an inappropriate comeback to outdated telegraph technology.

In 1962 Harold Wooster, chief of the information sciences division of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, wrote a letter to Engelbart in which he expresses his frustration. To make the point more heavy, he resorted to the help of sarcastic comparison:

I have no objection to antiquarianism as a hobby — restoring and learning to ride a high-wheel bicycle could be fun — but reinventing the highweel bycycle with government funds is something else again.
(p. 63)

In Alan Kay’s metaphor the failure of augmentation project was:

Engelbart, for better or for worse, was trying to make a violin, most people don’t want to learn the violin.
(p. 215)

This sounds like a fitting comparison, but there is a small stylistic dissonance if you know how desperately Engelbart was fighting for “knowledge workers” to accept the advantages of the Chord Keyset, a device that is operated like a grand piano.

One Response to “Douglas Engelbart, the automobile and other analogies”

  1. Jan Says:

    Dear Olia,
    Amazed to have found this post on Engelbart and Thierry Bardini’s book. I’ve been a great fan and admirer of Engelbart since the 80s, and recently corresponded with Thierry, when I came across his comments to the Engelbart Book Dialogues blog, . It was only then that I found out about his (TB’s) book “Bootstrapping”. I still need to get it. I am sorry I missed getting hold of a signed edition of the Engelbart book, that still lives in the form of the blog, maintained by Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg. Anyway, I got kind of hooked to the concept of augmentation, set off against automation. But I am still wondering if my interpretation of it has anything to do with Engelbart’s at that time. It’s strange, just as it was almost inconceivable in the 60s to think of computers as personal devices connected up in a network, it’s almost as inconceivable now to go back 40 years, displace your mind and really know what and how Douglas Engelbart was thinking. It’s a kind of anthropologist’s paradox.
    Funny you mention dancing. I have this idea that movement, creativity, emotion are all strongly related, and that the source of all things human are to be found there. There are scientists who have been finding actual evidence of this in the brain.
    The car (I agree with your irritation about car metaphors) is a means whereby a human achieves unprecendented movement, a unique response to the urge of not wanting to be here, while in transit, and our interactions with this machine are similar to the articulatory movements in the mouth when we utter speech. The ultimate means of movement connected to the earth actually is the motorbike, as it allows you to articulate the landscape, and gives the thrill of hitting a line in front of you that your brain is constantly laying down ahead. Nobody understands how our brain does that, but neurological scientists like Rodolfo Llinas, William Calvin, and Oliver Sacks, are trying to find explanations. I found the connection with William Calvin in George Dyson’s “Darwin among the Machines”, which I devoured.
    Anyway, sorry for too much incoherent rambling, I should know better. Another paradox is that web2.0 creates movement of knowledge, experience and ideas, unknown to man before, but at the same time it glues us to this whirring monster, thinking about how essential movement is.
    Take care,

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