The sun hasn't risen yet on this bone-cracking cold Christmas Eve morning. But neither freezing weather nor impending holiday stops the driven, spandex-clad troops inside Palo Alto's Fitness 101 from attacking an array of body-buffing machines.
Amid the youthful exercise cyclers is a striking figure: a trim, gray-haired man huffing a bit as he pedals in not spandex, but functional blue cotton slacks, a denim shirt and casual Hush Puppies-style shoes. "I wore these shoes in your honor. My sneakers are dirty and the shoelaces are broken," confesses Doug Engelbart with a smile.
No one among the BMW-driving, stock option-worshipping crowd pauses to look at the elderly man talking with a reporter. Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, the inventor credited with giving birth to the personal computing revolution is a virtual unknown, a 73-year-old sweating away anonymously on a stationary bike. Despite a recent wave of publicity, only the hardest-core geeks are aware that without Douglas Engelbart, many of the jobs, expensive cars and palatial homes built with silicon gold might not exist.
What they also don't know is that this fit senior citizen is just mid-revolution, still working feverishly on ideas that he hopes will change even more radically the way we work.
Engelbart works out at 6 a.m. at a health club in Palo Alto.
Engelbart's technological innovations of more than 30 years ago should have placed him at the top of the silicon heap - well above Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Netscape's Marc Andreessen and other luminaries credited with transforming our lives with personal computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Their products are all direct descendants of Engelbart's inventions.
But the mild-mannered computer scientist who created the computer mouse, windows-style personal computing, hyperlinking - the clickable links used in the World Wide Web - even e-mail and video conferencing, was ridiculed and shunted aside. For much of his career he was treated as a heretic by the industry titans who ultimately made billions off his inventions.
Engelbart spent years exiled from the revolution he helped launch. "I was sent to Siberia," he jokes, referring to the long stretch when he was ostracized from the research community.
His longtime friend, Paul Saffo, director of Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future, says Engelbart endured an even crueler fate. "At least in Siberia you no longer could see the revolution. Doug drove past the revolution every day and wondered, 'Why?' "
Engelbart is perhaps the most dramatic example of the valley's habit of forgetting engineers whose brilliance helped build companies - and entire industries. CEOs fail to mention them in corporate press releases; they never become household names. Yet we use their products, or the fruits of their ideas, every day.
True credit for the personal computing revolution belongs to a small cadre of pioneers who worked with Engelbart in his research lab or were influenced by his work.
This was a group dedicated to ideas and research. Back in the '60s, the goal wasn't necessarily to make money, but to create things that would improve our way of working and living. Although some, like Alan Kay, who envisioned the first laptop computer and other PC breakthroughs, achieved a modicum of fame and fortune, they aren't cultural icons like the millionaire founders of Yahoo!
"It's often the case that people who did the original work get lost by the time it gets out the back end of companies," says Sun Microsystems Inc. executive Jeff Rulifson, one of those who worked with Engelbart. "What you find in the big product announcements is that all the fame goes to the engineering teams who worked the last couple of years of a 20-year cycle. Doug is a grand example of that."
But unlike many of his colleagues, who would learn to balance their idealism with less lofty goals such as making a living and advancing their careers, Engelbart remained a purist who doggedly refused to compromise his vision for a better world.
"We were doing this for humanity. It would never occur to us to try and cash in on it. That's still where Doug's mind is," explains Rulifson, director of Sun's Networking and Security Center.
Engelbart still is working nonstop on the crusade he launched in the 1950s: He believes that as technology speeds up the rate of change, making the world increasingly complex, its power must be harnessed to help people collaborate and solve problems. He's clung stubbornly to his mission even after he lost his research lab, even when it meant less money, even after a devastating fire and a bout with a life-threatening illness. Even when the wise men of Silicon Valley ridiculed him.
Only in the last five years, as his once fantastic-sounding vision becomes reality, has he begun to win recognition. Last year he won the Turing Award, the Nobel Prize equivalent for computer scientists. He also was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1997, he won the coveted Lemelson-MIT $500,000 prize.
"We were doing this for humanity. It would never occur to us to try and cash in on it."
Sun Microsystems exec
He remains bewildered as to why it has taken so long for society to catch up to him. "The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. I have tolerated a lot," says Engelbart of his life. Reader's Digest paid Engelbart $35 to publish that quote, more than he was paid for many of his revolutionary inventions.
NEXT SECTION: Against all odds