Although Engelbart considers the year he lost both his house and research funding the "lowest point in my life," he almost died in the mid-'80s when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer. Doctors told him he had a 50 percent chance of survival. Thirteen years later, he is cancer-free, in excellent health and still championing his crusade.
On this Christmas Eve morning, Engelbart is a handsome figure, decked out in a suit, as he poses for the photographer at the Stanford Shopping Center. "I hardly ever wear a suit," he says, looking uncomfortable but distinguished. From here, we'll head to his small corner office at the Bootstrap Institute, the think tank he founded in 1989.
During the years Engelbart battled lymphoma, he retired from McDonnell Douglas and founded the institute with help from his daughter, Christina, and her husband, Howard Franklin, who'd worked with start-ups. Logitech International, the firm that's made billions selling a commercial version of Engelbart's mouse, donated office space in its Fremont headquarters. Through the Bootstrap Institute and its offshoot, the Bootstrap Alliance, Engelbart is exploring the best way to network our collective brain power to improve the way organizations communicate and solve problems. Or, as he puts its, we need to "bootstrap our collective IQ."
A critical and missing component toward that goal is software written with open standards. How difficult a quest? Bill Gates would have to give up proprietary control over the way Microsoft software is written. But as the world networks more, the push for such standards intensifies.
And a handful of major corporations - IBM, Sun Microsystems, Fuji Xerox Co. in Japan - and government agencies have joined the Bootstrap Alliance to explore new ways to stay ahead of the fast-changing technology curve. There's talk of a new collaboration with SRI.
Through the Bootstrap Institute Engelbart is exploring the best way to network our collective brain power to improve the way organizations communicate and solve problems.
The Alliance's work has allowed Engelbart to join forces with old collegues such as Jeff Rulifson. Rulifson's unofficial role is interpreting his mentor's abstract-sounding vision and keeping Engelbart from driving recruits out the door. "He has a precise idea about what people should be working on," says Rulifson. "He wants them to take big steps but they don't always want to do it that way. I've been able to get people to take small steps."
Interpreting Engelbart was also Rulifson's unofficial role at the Stanford symposium, a remarkable reunion of the pioneers who bucked the common wisdom of their time - when IBM reigned over a kingdom of unwieldy, screenless, imageless machines - and invented computers that interact with human beings.
"I got enough recognition that day [at the symposium] that I finally got validation with my family," admits Rulifson. Even though he won the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery's 1990 award for his work with Engelbart and Bill English on the Augment system, Rulifson is a virtual unknown in a world that worships high-tech's moneymakers.
Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, one of the symposium panelists, was struck by the contrast between these original silicon revolutionaries and the pioneers of his generation. "The biggest difference in innovators like Doug is that the human impact was foremost in their minds, a social idealism that isn't there today," observes the 27-year-old inventor of the browser credited with giving the public easy access to the World Wide Web.
"When you were working on Mosaic [the browser], were you trying to overcome a technological challenge or change mankind?" He laughs at my question and answers, "The former. Not many people have Doug's kind of willpower."
The old pioneers shake their head. "I do get heartburn to see young kids getting obscenely wealthy on third- or fourth- or fifth-level indirect ideas derived from Doug's work, while the guy who started this whole field still has to worry about making sure he's OK in his old age," says van Dam, now overseeing research on interactive books at Brown University. He has high praise for Andreessen's work but calls Mosaic and its companion Web-linking technology 'crude' compared with the browser developed by Engelbart's team.
"It was more powerful and quicker," confirms Rulifson, who wrote the software for the '68 browser. Instead of just linking you to a general Web page, the Augment browser took you to the exact piece of information.
"That's probably true," admits Andreessen good-naturedly. He says he did study Engelbart's work but he couldn't find detailed information about the code. Now he owns a complete set of Engelbart's papers and is searching through them for a still unmined Next Great Idea.
Does he feel guilt over making millions off Engelbart's innovations? "That's a tough question," he answers. "People take different paths because of their goals." Engelbart agrees. "I don't see why he should feel guilty. I had my opportunity, if not more, but I never pursued it."
It's enough that he has won back his reputation - something many visionaries don't live to see.
As the photo session wraps up, the photographer shows us the instant digital proofs on her computer monitor. Using a mouse, she starts moving around head shots of Engelbart.
"Did you ever think that 30 years later, the mouse would be used for this?" I ask. Up shoot the thick gray eyebrows. He looks genuinely puzzled. "I figured 10 to 15 years." Engelbart shrugs, "What's taken so long?"
Tia O'Brien is a contributing writer to West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.