December 9, 2008: The PC Turns 40

By December 09, 2008

Mondays during the NFL season I do my part to keep print media alive by buying the 25-cent San Francisco Chronicle at the BART station. Yesterday's front page had this provocative title: “A Stunned Crowd saw the PC born – mouse and all.” The article gave an insightful narrative account of the first demonstration of the personal computer, forty years ago today. The first PC and mouse were demoed on December 9, 1968, by Douglas Englelbart of Stanford’s Augmentation Research Center (“a research center for augmenting human intellect”), to a crowd of over 1000 at the SF Convention Center. Up until then, mainframe computers were massive, easily taking up the size of rooms. Engelbart’s computer was comprised of a mouse and interactive screen. The day was also the debut of the mouse, hypertext, windows, network collaboration and video/audio conferencing. Indeed, the future of computing was all rolled out in one punch. Said Standford Research Institute CEO Curt Carlson of the event: “No one has ever before or since seen such a collection of great ideas in one demonstration.”

The demo was met with a “rousing” standing ovation.

“The machine raised hopes of solving a major modern quandary – how to navigate the world’s rapidly accumulating and increasingly complex store of information,” writes the Chronicle’s Charles Burress.

Unlike other 20th century technologies that impacted out lifestyles, TV and film, there is little folk romanticization of the computer, and little interest in its history, perhaps because it is viewed as a tool, while TV and film are media.

While some people owned Commodores, Apples, and IBM in the 1980s, personal computers didn’t become truly mainstream until the Internet's popularity boom in the late 90s. Since then, they’ve become ubiquitous, and are now being replaced by notebooks, but since it took thirty years from their introduction to achieve mass adoption, it’s difficult to imagine they were invented so long ago – the debut of personal computing is left out of the myriad narratives of 1968, the year they say birthed our world.

The full presentation is available from Stanford here.

[Photo of Doug Engelbart, courtesy of Christina Engelbart and the Bootstrap Institute]

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