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June 01, 2008

The Mother of All Demos


A number of years ago, in 1988, my brother and I were showing our first product, The Manhole, at the HyperExpo in San Francisco. We built The Manhole with a hypermedia tool called HyperCard, similar in many ways to today's web (at a time when the web didn't yet exist). HyperCard served, not only as the first wide-scale implementation of hypermedia, but also as an important precursor to the web.

While we were doing our thing, mostly just enjoying the Expo (it was our first intro to a software show), we couldn't help but notice an enigmatic group, run by one Ted Nelson, calling themselves Project Xanadu. They made themselves known by roaming the floor in mysterious black t-shirts, each t-shirt silk-screened with a large "X". How curious... like rebels amidst a HyperCard majority. Who were these men in black?

It might have been the first time I heard of the words hyperlink, hypertext or hypermedia . It was definitely the first I learned that the "link" concepts, so central to HyperCard, were not original inventions of Bill Atkinson. And it was the first I learned that these concepts, so central to today's web, were older than I was! 1965 to be exact... and the brainchild of aforementioned Mr. Ted Nelson, the leader of these Xanadu crusaders.

What I didn't know until recently, is that a stunted version of hypertext had been demonstrated as early as 1968. This was no run-of-the-mill boring-vision-of-the-future demo. This was, simply put, "The Mother of All Demos". Steven Levy first gave it that name and it seems to have stuck: The Mother of All Demos (and oh I really love that name). Douglas Engelbart's whirling vision of the future; it was the first public use of a mouse, as well as examples of cutting, copying, pasting, teleconferencing, video conferencing, email, and... hypertext. It's just too damn much for 1968! From Steven Levy in his book, "Insanely Great, The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything":

... a calming voice from Mission Control as the truly final frontier whizzed before their eyes. It was the mother of all demos. Engelbart's support staff was as elaborate as one would find at a modern Grateful Dead concert. ...

click here to watch Engelbart demonstration.

click here for a flyer of the original demo.

Update: Thanks to Kevin for telling me about Belgian inventor, Paul Otlet who, unbelievably, invented hyperlinking decades before Ted Nelson. Read more on Kevin's True Film's blog, or click images below.


Clip from the documentary about Paul Otlet, "The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World". (video)


In this google tech talk, Alex Wright explores the heritage of the web. (video)

June 1, 2008 | Permalink


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It's scary though - all of these then original ideas shown in one demo, and so much of it is still left as the basic foundation of all mainstream personal computer interfaces. A small bunch of people came up with heaps and heaps of new concepts - and no one has been "able" to do a major overhaul to it since. Or no one seriously tried.

No matter how much I respect Engelart's efforts and what they meant for making computer usage mainstream, I think it's time for a serious paradigm shift in interface design... We could do them a lot more efficient and versatile these days I think...

Posted by: tor | Jun 3, 2008 1:22:52 AM

The scary thing is how long it took for the computing world to recognise the value of Douglas Engelbart's ideas... and how little most people in the industry know about their own history.

Posted by: michael | Jun 3, 2008 3:05:50 AM

This chat/interview from 2005 is perhaps relevant for people looking into "the demo"


Posted by: speedy | Jun 3, 2008 8:11:24 AM

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