sitemap CSCW History/Background: Doug Engelbart

Historical Background to CSCW and Groupware:
Engelbart's Vision of IT-Driven Organizational Integration


Copyright 1989, 1992, 1996 Randall Whitaker.
This material may be freely cited, copied, and/or distributed, so long as the author attribution is included.

Picture of Doug Engelbart

Douglas ('Doug') Engelbart

The idea that computer technology would provide a novel and powerful tool for 'knowledge work' dates back about as far as the digital computer itself. In his visionary 1945 essay As We May Think, Vannevar Bush outlined what we would now recognize as an IT-augmented desktop environment with 'windowing' and flexible referential linkages of the sort we now associate with hypertext (e.g., WWW). Although Bush's projections are commonly cited in introducing CSCW issues, he cannot really be considered the inspiration for the field, insofar as his perspective was primarily on the individual 'knowledge worker.'

If there is someone properly considered a "godfather" to CSCW and groupware, it must be Douglas ("Doug") Engelbart. He is credited with many of the innovations which now make computers easier to use, and he was involved in the creation of the earliest computer-supported meeting environment at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960's.

It is Engelbart's overall vision of how computers can be employed in organizations which both sets the context for these individual achievements and establishes him as a key source of the ideas in CSCW. Engelbart's vision was one in which knowledge workers deal with information rather than with physical goods. In addition to manipulating and manufacturing data, they create knowledge of the task, of the means for achieving that task, and of the workplace. Shared information environments provide the milieux within which knowledge workers can augment as well as mutually pool knowledge. Some key features in Engelbart's vision are:

  1. access to computers for all workers (including easy usability);

  2. linkages among all workers within an organization via telecommunications;

  3. storage of the organization's "knowledge" within this shared electronic environment; and

  4. the means by which the ongoing "knowledge" relating to operations can accrete to the shared environment.

There is one media artifact which drives home the significance of Engelbart's work to the current revolutionary proliferation of online interactivity, and I strongly recommend you take the time to track it down and watch it. The technical video program for the CSCW'94 conference (ACM SIGGRAPH Video Review, issue 106) includes some historic 'footage' (edited by Saul Greenberg, University of Calgary) of the December 1968 presentation in which Engelbart first publicly introduced the results of his team's work. On this singular occasion, Engelbart unveils such innovations as the mouse, computer networking, computer-based video conferencing, electronic messaging, and the free-form referential linking of what we now call 'hypertext'. Bluntly stated, the set of technologies through which you are reading this Web page are not just envisioned, but concretely demonstrated, nearly 30 years ago. The scale of that intervening delay says as much about societal / organizational inertia as it does about the strength of that initial vision.

Engelbart himself has pursued this vision over the last 4 decades. His work at SRI led to development of a prototype system (called Augment) was developed, incorporating many of the communications / storage / retrieval / documentation functions which today we associate with email, hypertext, databases, and the like. Augment later served as the foundation for data services provided through Tymeshare, Inc., which even later was bought by McDonnell Douglas. Today, Augment is a component of the tools being applied by Engelbart's Bootstrap Institute in his ongoing efforts to investigate the ways in which organizations can implement shared knowledge environments and apply the results toward renewal of large American institutions (particularly corporations) (Engelbart, 1990).


Further Readings on Doug Engelbart: Online Resources

A brief synopsis of Engelbart and his work

Overview of Engelbart's SRI work (Augmented Human Intellect Center)

Transcript of a Video History Interview with Mr. Doug Engelbart
On the occasion of his winning the Computerworld Smithsonian Award
Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., May 4, 1994
Interviewed by Jon Eklund
Division of Computers, Information, & Society
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution

This online documentation is an extensive record of Engelbart talking about his career, his innovations, and the long and rocky process of promoting their adoption.

Nice general introduction to Engelbart

Bootstrap Institute
(Engelbart's current gig)

Toward Augmenting the Human Intellect and Boosting Our Collective IQ
(commentary by Engelbart)


Further Readings on Doug Engelbart: Gutenberg Resources

Engelbart, D., A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect, in Greif, I. (ed.), Computer-Supported Cooperative Work : A Book of Readings, San Mateo CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 1988, pp. 35-65.

Engelbart, D., Toward High-Performance Knowledge Workers, in Greif, I. (ed.), Computer-Supported Cooperative Work : A Book of Readings, San Mateo CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 1988, pp. 67-78.

Engelbart, D., and H. Lehtman, Working together, BYTE, December 1988, pp. 245-252.

Engelbart, D., Knowledge-domain interoperability and an open hyperdocument system, in CSCW'90: Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Los Angeles: ACM, 1990, pp. 143-156.

RETURN to Entry Point