Yesterday, the renowned inventor of the computer mouse, Doug Engelbart, passed away at the age of 88. While he is known to be a legend among many of the technology luminaries, he is two generations behind me and the technology world I knew in New England so his name wasn’t on my radar when I first landed in Silicon Valley. That said, despite the fact that I haven’t yet lived in the Bay Area for a decade, I was introduced to him within months of moving here.
You see, coming from Boston’s more conservative and traditional world of tech, I didn’t really know where to begin when I first moved out here, who mattered or could get me a “job.” Six or seven years ago, I really didn’t know that many people and so I started to “network like hell,” only to realize that getting a “job” would be the last thing on my mind.
In the early days, Sylvia Paull, Ben Gross and Michael Tchong led me around a bit, John Battelle invited me to a few things, a few people I had met from Intel, Adobe and Microsoft and Oracle put me on lists, but for the most part, it was watch, listen and well….just show up everywhere. My friend Sandy Rockowitz who I knew from back east told me about the events he went to and since Sandy was the geekiest friend I knew at the time (oh how that has changed), I figured I’d start to hang out where he hung out.
It took me longer than it should have to realize that not all geeks are alike and spending my time at engineering meet-ups in Berkeley, the SV Forum and SD Forum wasn’t exactly where right brain technology people hung out. BUT, they were such fabulous places to learn.
Truth be told, SD Forum was where I got my kicks in the early days and where I met some of my earliest geek friends.
They knew the lay of the land and the “language”, not the venture capitalists. Doug Engelbart and those who followed his work were the kinds of folks who showed up there, so suddenly I started hearing about people like Doug Engelbart in those circles. I learned about his life as well as names that anyone under 40 or even 50 might not have heard of, like Paul Friedl, Daniel Tellep, John G. Linvill, David Hodges, Dan Maydan and others.
Soon after making California home, I got to meet the legendary Doug Engelbart at some function I can’t now recall and then in 2005 at a speaker dinner I was invited to. Doug was actually at my table as was my bud Tom Foremski who wrote a wonderful write-up and tribute today about his death as well. We were both in awe at how people marveled at his accomplishments as if he was long gone and not actually hanging out with us in the room.
As Tom points out, John Markoff, and many members of the Homebrew Club, and former colleagues of his spoke about Doug’s incredible influence on their work, ideas, and how he changed their lives. We learned about this man from the inside and as Tom so eloquently writes, “it seemed as if he was the Buckminster Fuller of Silicon Valley in terms of how insightful and how brilliant he was, in story after story shared by people at the event. Others compared him to Leonardo DaVinci.”
It was a treasured moment and frankly, I felt as if I was (and probably was) the only right brain at the event. This of course made it even more treasured. Doug moved me in those two encounters I had with him in such a short period of time, and through the stories so many others around us shared that I decided to meet him again. Thanks to Bill Daul, the meeting happened, as I was keen to include him in a book project I was (and am still working on) about innovators in the industry who are driven by their hearts moreso than their heads.
On that memorable day two years ago (May 2011), his wife Karen led me into their Silicon Valley home and out into the back garden where we had tea and biscuits and talked. The sun was shining, the garden was beautiful and Doug wore a smile all afternoon.
The day brought me joy and snapping photos of this intelligent, creative, amusing and inspiring legend was more than just memorable. It falls into the realm of magic moments which all of us have over the course of our personal and professional lives.
His work touched my professional life and made me remember and respect the people I worked with in the speech recognition industry for so many years. They too were trying to change the way we interacted with the world in a way that would be transformative….like Doug and other technology visionaries like him. As Clint Wilder said in a Facebook comment when I posted about his death, “this is the passing of an era.”
Yes, it is. It was an era of Silicon Valley that this generation won’t ever truly know or understand. It was a time when these legends were changing a paradigm of all communication, not enhancing a digital one one we already have.
Legends like Doug don’t build mobile games, check-in apps, quirky photo apps or another social media network. They work on things that will change the way we not just interact with the world, but see the world.
John Markoff wrote a great book entitled: What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, which pointed out that Doug Engelbart didn’t get the recognition he deserved, specifically for yes, the mouse, but also for timesharing, which allows many users to share the same computer. Take a look at the 1968 demo which altered the ideas of what people thought was possible. In that historical demo of the mouse, the world first saw hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.
I write this post in honor of him today…for the work he did, for the history and memories he created and for the lives he touched. Rest in peace Doug Engelbart, rest in peace!