Looking back at the tech demo that changed Silicon Valley

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A replica of the computer mouse introduced to the public 50 years ago by Douglas Engelbart from SRI International in a presentation now called "The mother of all demos". (KGO)

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential product demonstrations in Silicon Valley. It would later be called the "Mother of All Demos" and it laid the groundwork for the way we use computers today.

It happened on December 9, 1968. That's when Douglas Engelbart from the Stanford Research Institute gave a presentation at the Computer Society's Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. His demonstration would revolutionize computing.

Over a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart introduced the world to the computer mouse, word processing, hypertext, windows and video conferencing.

It was all so new that at one point Engelbart apologized for naming the input device a mouse.

"I don't know why we call it a mouse. I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it," said Engelbart during the presentation.

Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum says Engelbart didn't just present concepts like others had done in the past. He showed his ideas working.

"It completely blew people's minds in 1968. This was just science fiction stuff for most of the people who were watching," said Weber. "He showed the computer scientists of 1968 a glimpse of 20, 30, 40 years into the future of computing. But also, the whole idea of interacting with a computer. It was very radical at the time.


Up until then, people just fed information into computers using punch cards and waited for it to do calculations. This demo showed a new concept -- real-time interaction with a computer.

"It demonstrated for the public and for scientists the ability for a computer, not just to be controlled by a human being, but integrated how a human being wants to communicate and collaborate," said Stephen Ciesinki, president of SRI International. Ciesinski says scientists are still finding inspiration in Engelbart's ideas.

One example is SRI research into speech recognition by computers.

"I talk into this system and it is immediately saying, 'There is some speech,'" said Aaron Lawson, Assistant Director of SRI's Speech Lab. He showed a system his team is working on that recognizes different languages based on their pitch and tone. In a demonstration, the computer was able to distinguish between spoken Russian, French, Mandarin and Spanish.

Engelbart's demo took place in what is now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the same place Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple II computer in 1977, which is considered the first personal computer.

While Jobs had a flair for the dramatic in his presentations, Ciesinski says it was Engelbart that set the tone for how today's tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors.



"Some of the older venture capitalists still point to the mother of all demos when they talk to a young entrepreneur who wants to know how to do a good demonstration of technology." said Ciesinski, who recommends tech entrepreneurs watch Engelbart's demo if they plan to make a pitch for investor money for their ideas.

On Sunday, the Computer History Museum will host an all-day symposium and exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Engelbart's demo. Similar events will be held in London and Tokyo.
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