Doug's Story


Most of the longer sequences were told first hand, written down and re-writtern as third person so this is very in much Doug's own voice.

Early Years

Doug was born in Oregon January 30, 1925. He studied to become a radar technician while in college and served as one in the Navy - he left for war the very day peace was declared.

Doug spent quite some time at the Red Cross Library while he was stationed in the Philippines. There he came across a book called Making the most of your life which had a significant influence on him. He also read Vannevar Bush's As We May Think.

Driving To Work

Doug was driving to work the Monday morning after getting engaged in December 1950.

Having got a good job and was about to get married he thought-" is this it?" What am I going to do with my life?

What to do with his life?

He then calculated the amount of professional minutes he would have for his career: Assuming he would work til he was 65. He was then 25 and taking an assumption of an average work year containing 2,000 hours a year that would make it 65-25=40 years *2,000 hours a year= 80,000 hours of professional work or 4,800,000 minutes. And he kept thinking.

The first issue and question on that Monday morning was a view of this empty hallway of his career, there was no plan - which was embarrassing.

So what kind of plan and objective - goals should he have: Money? Enough for raising a family yes, but he didn't find that in itself really interesting.

Sometime that morning he had a thought: I am investing a career, what kind of return would I like? What if I could maximize the value my career contributes to mankind? This started orientating him.

Crusade Hunting

So he spent a couple of months crusade hunting.

By February/March he had spent enough time thinking about crusades. Real crusades, not just 'lets clean up this neighborhood'. Well, you know, one thing to think about is great contributions, but how have individuals changed history? Gengis Khan and Adolf Hitler come to mind. Not laudatory examples, but interesting. This didn't lead him very far. He did read a lot about Khan though that week.

Other crusades like health in thethird world etc came to mind. He had read about someone who wanted to drain swamps where natives where living and were suffering from malaria. So the swamps got drained and the mosquitoes went away. And the population went up. However... the bigger population ruined their environment and a couple of generations later they were back where they started.


One Saturday it dawned on him: Boy, the world is complex, jeez, the problems are getting more complex and urgent and have to be dealt with collectively- we have to deal with them collectively.

So here came the crusade: how to deal with maximizing the improvements we could make for mankind's abilities to deal with complex, urgent problems.

In the next half hour or so he really got the picture of computers and interactive displays. This was 1951.

You see he had read a book about computers (Giant Brains, or Machines That Think by Edmund C Berkeley, Consultant in Modern Technology, 1949.) and he was a radar technician in the second world war. He also had an electrical engineering degree, the engineer in him could generalize what the circuits could do etc.

The thought went like this: The radar could draw stuff on the screen for the operator, but in a limited way. Having seen the internal electronics which could provide the display for the operator, he knew that if a computer could print on a line printer electronically it would be able to produce anything you wanted on the CRT!

The radar could watch the operator and do things. Jeez, the computer could watch the operator and do whatever you want on the screen: The computer could interact with the display in all sorts of flexible portrayals. It could do fast retrieval and it could do jobs for you: It could allow you to type - what we now call word processing. It could retrieve for you, submit to someone else at a distance. Distance work! Large numbers of people could be interacting with the knowledge. What a revolutionary thought- a real, feasible way to allow people from afar to work together. One could only think of explorable options about what the computer could provide for you which your typewriter cannot.

The picture came easily, within half an hour once the right question had been formulated and digested.

The concept of interactive computing was born in his mind. This basic picture never changed.

Implementing the vision presented lots of practical problems. It took 11-14 years to get a chance to tie displays to screens and start doing things with them.


Doug assumed he had to learn about computers. He had been out of college for three years and was due to be married.

To do this kind of research he probably needed a PhD. He Applied to Stanford and Berkeley. Berkeley had a research project to build a computer called CALDIC (California Digital Computer) so that made him decide. However it never worked while he was there - it was not finished before he got his degree and he left.

They (Berkeley) had labs and courses on digital circuit design. Making adders and multipliers and arithmetic controls, watching registers. They wrote programs in machine language. By hand. And exchanged their designs with other students to debug each others work. There was talk of research projects to make assemblers and compilers, but that was not quite a reality yet. Pretty geeky days!

The idea of individuals using interactive computers was ludicrous at the time.

For his masters thesis he got an idea: ...When a digital drum rotated it would get successive cells along a track and so you addressed it by what track and cell the speed of the computer was then tied to the speed of the drum rotation. (it spins at a constant speed, counts to when it'll be the right cell) I realized that I could improve on it. Mix of hardware and software....

He got his masters in 1952, which was actually called an Engineers Degree.

This might have given him a better feeling for how programmers have to do things but it could have been better spent he thought.

So for his PhD thesis he did something acceptable. In 1955 he Doug got his PhD in Electrical Engineering (with specialty in computers) through work on bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices at UC Berkeley.

At Berkeley he was biding time, learning about basic electromagnetic wave propagation, solid state physics, symbolic logic. Doug puts it in a very nice way: I was basically getting my journeyman's card. I also got a bunch of patents - 13-14 from the PhD thesis. He doubts they were useful in the world...

Then he was an acting assistant professor at Berkeley. Teaching basic electrical engineering. One singular event happened- he and his wife had had 3 children. His wife got this great theory if you get your first 2 closely together there would be less sibling rivalry, but the unplanned number three came an hour later!

It became a matter of teaching and bringing up the kids. 2-3 hours a day of great focus and concentration. So no more evening time for the crusade.

He made some friends in other faculty though. There was a BBQ at an economics professors place. Doug helped clean up afterwards and they got talking. The economics professor wanted to know what kind of research he was planning to get started. What kind of research he'd do would be important for his career etc. Doug told him about computers and augmentation - there came a point when he didn't look very interested. He looked at Doug and said: Do you know how promotions are done at university? Doug remembers the moment well: My jaw dropped, guess I don't. It's about peer review: If you don't get papers published you won't get advanced. Papers get published by peer review.Talk like this and they won't get reviews. So much for blindly looking for an academic career!

Job Hunting

Doug knocked at HP's door, who were in the instrument business at the time. They were nice and offered him a job as they liked the patents. Both Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard interviewed him. He asked if they planned to get in to computers. The head of research said "gee Doug, not a chance".


He settled on a research position at Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, in 1957.

SRI had a project with Bank of America to build a computer to process cheques or something - it was called ERMA. All vacuum tubes. So he knew that they had been doing this for a while and he interviewed them. He got hired. But maybe only because the guy who interviewed him, a Danish guy by the name of Torben Meisling, had been a couple of years ahead of Doug at Berkeley. He got hired on the basis of his patents. Torben warned him not to talk about the computer stuff.

It was time to bide time and build a position.

Doug got in involved with Hewitt Crane. He had a project going where he invented- according to Doug it was ingenious -it was all magnetic materials, they were little ferrite little things with multiple apertures (MAD's ). It was a fair amount of work and various parties were interested. Doug invented new things and got more patents.

But all the time he kept thinking ahead how could he do what he wanted to do...

By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval for pursuing his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a conceptual framework for a new discipline that became the guiding force for his 1962 seminal work, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," under contract prepared for the Director of Information Sciences of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

A couple of projects came along which were closer to his intended direction.


One of them was a project which was very, very important to him and this was an accident. Doug talked to the air force research manager about components getting smaller. Transistors etc. So Doug suggested that he carry out a study to see what would happen if you make the components smaller - knowing that there would be more demand for computer power and the only practical way to get faster and more powerful computers is to make the components smaller.

So how could you make them smaller? Would there be any problems? What happens?

Lets just consider the scaling issue for a while.

The underlying thing is this: If you change the physical scale of some device, making it 1/100th the size of what it was, you cannot assume it will work. A lot of factors change so you have to sit down and re-design the whole thing.

It is the same with scaling an aircraft up in a wind tunnel. It definitively won't work. The aeronautical guys learnt this way back in school and told him about this. They told him about something called dimensionless numbers. Every measurement generally has dimensions, kg, miles, etc. so there's this amazing thing that if you take all the numbers which are significant you can arrange them in a way so all the dimensions cancel, and you get a dimensionless number, if this works, you can then depend on the numbers. Very mysterious.

At the Solid State Conference in 1959 Doug was going to talk to them about the effects of scaling electronic components. He said if you change the scale you get surprises. He was met with looks of disbelief. They were engineers and physicists, how could he possibly lecture them?

So he said would you notice if everything and everyone here increased by 10 in each dimension? What would happen?

Many said they wouldn't notice a thing as the angles would be the same; looking at someone bigger would look the same if you yourself was bigger. But what about weight? And strength?

If you make something 10 times bigger you get 1,000 times the volume (10 times in each of the three dimensions) and 1,000 the weight.

But the strength? In most materials strength is dependent on the cross sectional area of the material. How much stronger does the material become? Only 100 times as strong (as you are only expanding it in two dimensions).

Let me go into that a bit more: If you look at strength as how much force you can exert by, lets say, stretching a cylinder of a given material before it breaks. Fair measurement? Then you will notice that you have the same pressure at every point pulling the cylinder apart. Or you can think of it as a rope, or anything you can picture stretching. At every point where the cylinder is stretched - a force is applied - in the direction of the force, so that only leaves two dimensions for strength. A little weird but everyone is happy with that?

So for scaling a person- you, you'd be 1,000 times heavier but only 100 times stronger. There becomes a difference of a factor of ten between weight and strength.

That is the same as if you were 10 times heavier right now without the increase in size (normal human is about 70kg - so imagine 700kg), and had the same (muscular and skeletal) strength. You may not even be able to sit on a chair. You could fall, and break your bones.

So the Solid State people started to listen to the significance of scale changes.

In the world of electronics there'd be issues too, just like there would be if we were scaled. You could have trouble if you expected the device to work the same at this scale - temperature and so on are also affected.

The scale of change of the tools out there... wow the impact. it will start changes...

The scale of the rate of change is also a scaling factor. If it becomes too fast we will not be able to integrate it into society.

Doug puts it this way: The only thing we can help protect yourself with is if we get collectively smarter. It' not just interesting, it's a matter of the survival of humanity.


Doug discovered Licks paper Man-Computer Symbiosis from 1960. It was thrilling. On the surface there was so much parallel to his. He learnt he had been lured into the Department of Defence's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to start up and head a new division IPTO- The Information Processing Techniques Office.

Doug sent him a proposal to Licks ARPA office. He got pretty quick success. Doug didn't know it then but Licks colleagues thought it was a big risk project. A year earlier the National Institute of Health had turned them down. They interviewed them but sent them a letter saying interesting, but you are way out there in Palo Alto where there are no computer programmers!

The first 2 years were flops.

The 1st year SRI managers were really concerned about the publication about the 1962 report: "AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT : A Conceptual Framework.. It seemed arty fartsy blue sky stuff with no reality.

Still, money from ARPA came for this and they put a 'more experienced guy' in charge. Doug got a promotion to Senior Research Engineer. But the job would be done by the project leader. Doug was out of the loop. The other guy was in control. Doug protested. Helplessly and frustrated. Doug says: I wasn't cogent enough to call Lick but he came out for a project review. He asked me what it was all about. He said 'god damn it, this stuff is so bad if my boss found out he'd fire me!' So I explained and he called them, he said more money would be sent, but don't do that again.

During the 2nd year Lick wanted Doug to go ahead with an idea of an augmentation system at SRI where he wanted Doug to program a client program on a small computer and a little CRT display. The display could show letters etc. but it was supposed to work through a modem with a time sharing computer in LA who he was already supporting to be time shared Doug's group was amongst the first to be time shared. But it only lasted for about 3-5 minutes before crashing. So the second year didn't mature much either.

But Lick kept going

In the third year Doug said we'd like to have our our own computer which would be big enough to run our own real time system. A CDC 3100 arrived. We set it up in a room and it had about six platters (1 1/2' dia) [Are these platters 1.5 or 5.5 in diameter?]. It was a real boon to have a machine.

They needed a display for that so they built their own. It cost $80-90,000. In those days there was no way you could have enough high speed memory to store the bit map of the display. You couldn't store it and have it operate fast enough, so they had to build the electronics for it as well.

It would have to move the beam into position and turn it on and move it around to display the characters. It could only do upper case characters. They used this for 4 years or so. BTW, upper case was indicated by a bar over the character.

As Doug says: This was the best we could do for a ton of money, you can then see how people said it would be crazy to spend this on individuals, but we said it wouldn't stay that way for long...

Then Bill English came to work with Doug at the beginning of 1964. He had gotten his M.S. at Stanford in 1962, in engineering. A very energetic and competent engineer. Very bright, very active. He complemented Doug and provided things Doug wasn't good at. Doug had his right hand man, his doer.

Doug tells of how the mouse came about: One thing we did with this was I could get a special research grant from NASA we need to have screen selection, so we got NASA to set up the research money to test how to get screen selection.

Which way would be best? There were lots of ideas, so I said lets experiment. Bill sat up and ran the project, testing various devices. We published a paper on it. One of the first things we did was to run a lot of tests. We got some secretaries who all knew how to type. I looked at all these devices and thought 'gee is that all' so I remembered a sketch I had in a little notebook so I gave it to Bill to build and he did. I couldn't have done it without Bill, but the patent attorney didn't agree with me in wanting Bill to share the patent.

1962 Paper

In 1962 Doug wrote the paper which would come to frame the vision and orient the future work. It was titled AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT : A Conceptual Framework which you can read at

It simply and clearly states the goal of his work, to augment human intellect: By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.

His work was to be developing a means to augment the human intellect. These "means" can include many things--all of which appear to be but extensions of means developed and used in the past to help man apply his native sensory, mental, and motor capabilities-- and we consider the whole system of a human and his augmentation means as a proper field of research for practical possibilities. It is a very important system to our society, and like most systems its performance can best be improved by considering the whole as a set of interacting components rather than by considering the components in isolation.

So the job then became a matter of finding the factors that limit the effectiveness of the individual's basic information-handling capabilities in meeting the various needs of society for problem solving in its most general sense; and to develop new techniques, procedures, and systems that will better match these basic capabilities to the needs' problems, and progress of society.

This is important, simply because man's problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource.

This is where he stands. He wrote his mission statement in 1962. It's a great paper. Only very little of the specific technology references are dated.

The Mother Of All Demos


1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, CA, December, has since become known as The Mother of All Demos. That was where Doug first showed NLS to the world In a remarkable 90-minute multimedia presentation, Doug used NLS to outline and illustrate his points, while others of his staff linked in from his lab at SRI to demonstrate key features of the system.

This was the world debut of the mouse, hypermedia, and on-screen video teleconferencing. You can see it at


Most of his teams leaves ARC for XEROX PARC.


Doug's house burns down.


His first wife of 47 years, Ballard, dies in 1997.

21st Century

Doug remarried on January 26, 2008 to writer and producer Karen O'Leary Engelbart who is a true joy in his life.






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