The Engelbart Elephant
18 September 2003
The story has worn-denim feel of an urban legend, or even in this case a real legend; although squirrelly men in T-shirts looking like Bruce Naumann have little general mythic appeal, the technophiles of the present are still caught on the cusp, where the impossibly ancient creatures of their creation myths are still kicking, and appear at conventions, or show unhealthy vitality driving research projects in the Apple labs or Palo Alto, shrugging off the catalogue of world-changing inventions that follows them around like an embarrassing guest. In twenty years time they will all be gone, and maybe technology might be able to construct a narrative beyond the shadow of those Prometheans and start organising its mythology properly. When they do, though, there is every chance that they will open and close their chapters with an elephant. Which is where we came in.
The desert is traditionally where wise men went out to think, to commune and to return with inspirations. For Doug Engelbart, it was just a great amber nothing, dead space between his home and his office. Processing time. One of the truths of driving in America is that you usually have a lot of space to see approaching danger and a lot of time to get out of the way. Minds wander, ideas are played with, but while you and I might be pondering ways to increase productivity, or get through another day without beheading anyone, or what our co-workers look like naked, Doug Engelbart was thinking about the elephant.
How he got to see people naked I have no idea.
You have one on your desktop and so do I - although, writing on my notebook, I am using a fingerphant - a cradle of unfolded plastic with a clearance just enough to move one digit around. I don't like them - they are fiddly, and you have to pull your finger away and replace it to move fully across the screen. If I were at my desk, and not writing in bed, I would plug an external elephant into my spare USB port and allow my hand to wander around the sensor cage. They are talking about having elephants without cages in the future, which lie flat on the tabletop, but without the guide of the four verticals and the roof, most users will be lost, I suspect.
The Engelbart elephant, although almost identical in conception to these sleek new devices, was a very different animal. It took Doug a decade from the first visionary idea to the prototype, and by our standards that prototype was laughably primitive. But it was the idea, the vision that was always the important thing. Engelbart had realised that moving information around any system by typing was counterintuitive and time-consuming. We do not "move" things by typing - we write by typing. How do we move? Physically. We pick things up and carry them to different places. We walk from site to site. After a while, we can navigate from place to place without thinking - how much do you remember about the foot-in-front-of-foot that brought you to your workstation today? We move by instinct - why not move information by the same instinct?
They have it on the bloopers reel of, on average, every third tech convention. Engelbart, strapped into the very first elephant. Looking like a child standing underneath a table, he seems half victim and half lover of the device, with four steel pillar placed in a square around him, leather straps criss-crossing along each hypotenuse across his body, one noose circling his thickening waist and disappearing into the ceiling and another running from his wrist to a pull in the far wall. His colleagues thought of it as a pentagram drawn around four pillars and a pull switch, an experiment in voodoo computation.
Next to this vast assembly, the screen seems minuscule, and he has to peer to make it out. It's a jerky ballet - the straps are too tense and he overbalances more than once (cue appreciative laughter from the conventioneers - these are like home movies for techperts). The effect is further ruined by the single camera, held by his lab partner - to focus on the screen, it has to pan away from Engelbart, so you never quite make the connection between the one and the other. But you know what you're seeing - as Doug struggles soundlessly against the cords, the tension and motion are transferred into jerky movements on the screen. When he pulls his fist back to his chest, the pull selects an item.
Doug Engelbart had laid the foundations for the GUI, the home computer and, most of all, the pointing device.
If you're my age, or slightly younger, you started with the clumsy children of that device, not so huge as the originals but still the size of a man, with institutional white loops damp-sponged down once a week in university computer rooms. Bearded men in grateful dead T-shirts jiggling as they played ASCII Missile Command, and an almost tangible trail of sweat running to and from. Infrared sensors made a world of difference - without the need to be held in place, "convenience cubicles" started to spring up in offices, where after only a few hours of Alexander posture training (one of the odd industries that flourished beyond expectations through synergies with computer development, before dying off as technology replaced technique) office workers could wriggle through their computer systems, waving and pointing to select, move and delete files. They looked bloody stupid, but improved productivity, and the increasing ubiquity of constant rhythmic exercise, is credited with higher profits and reduced heart disease levels in white collar work - a twenty-a-day man was suddenly disadvantaged in the boardroom as well as the gym.
Thank god we passed that phase, I think as I pat my growing belly. Now, the elephant on your desk fits your fist with a handspan's room around, but is perhaps a thousand times as responsive as Engelbart's original, with a different function keyed to each finger and divided further by context. The next generation of coders are already attending cheerleading classes - spirit fingers are a skill beyond price.
Who knows how small and how versatile the elephant may become? After thirty years, who could imagine a world without them, still slaved to the command line? Wireless elephants, bluetooth elephants, chrome and glass elephants...my own elephant is made of moulded resins, with a spider-thin cage and totally clear. It was a gift from the MIT lab. In fact, it was a gift from Doug Engelbart, who got it from the MIT lab. He passed it on to me - he still uses a full-size version, and never really got the hang of the smaller, compensating with an astonishing agility for a man his age. I blushed, pointing out that all I had really done was make the coffee and point the camera. He told me that wasn't the point, and I took it on trust.
After all, nobody ever got the point like Engelbart.