'The Mother of All Demos' Is 45 Years Old, Doesn't Look a Day Over 25

The talk that kicked off the personal computing revolution looks a lot like today's tech presentations ... and much, much different.

On Monday, December 9, 1968, a crowd of 1,000 people—computer professionals, mostly—gathered at the San Francisco Convention Center. They were there for a demo, part of the Fall Joint Computer Conference, that would be delivered by Douglas Engelbart and the 17 researchers working with him at  the Stanford Research Institute: The team would be offering a summary of nearly ten years' worth of research into the augmentation of human intelligence.

Engelbart and his team presented for about an hour and 40 minutes. The talk consisted of, among other things, the first public demonstration of a computer mouse. It introduced WYSIWYG editing. It showed off hypertext. It demonstrated the graphical user interface. Engelbart and his colleagues explained these new technologies; they also employed many of them as part of their presentation. (A young Steward Brand acted as one of their camera operators.) For people who had been used to thinking of computers as little more than fancy calculators, the whole thing was fairly mind-blowing.  

It was also, in a very meaningful way, the start of the personal computing revolution. The talk was the culmination of that reading of Vannevar Bush Engelbart had done on that Philippine island in the aftermath of World War II: The Stanford team was demonstrating, essentially, a Memex brought to life. That hour-and-40-minutes was, in the end, one of the most impactful technological presentations to be delivered since Gutenberg got some people together for cocktails, crudités, and a show of how he'd hacked a wine press. It would go on to be dubbed "the mother of all demos."

It's now been 45 years since Engelbart's presentation—and, courtesy of the very technologies Engelbart was showing off that day, you can watch it in full, above. It's a far cry from the flashy demos of today's Silicon Valley, with their punchy soundtracks and droopy hoodies and studied informality. But it's of a piece with the modern demos, too: the optimism, the pragmatism, the trust that technology can make things better for the people who use it. It's a testament to what can happen when you get a bunch of nerds together and ask them to invent the future.

Original announcement of the 1968 Demo (Christina Engelbart and the Bootstrap Institute via Stanford)


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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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