IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1997 ∑ 17
tion, antennas, and amplifiers. Following this training, Engelbart
was sent to the Philippines. As his ship backed out of its berth in
San Francisco, whistles and firecrackers started going off, and peo-
ple began cheering. Japan had just surrendered. Instead of going
into active combat, Engelbart was sent to the Philippines to help
with the demobilization efforts. As a Navy electronics technician, he
took care of radios, sonar (then known as sound navigation rang-
ing), teletype transmission, and radar. This experience was an intro-
duction to all types of new communication technologies.
Engelbart’s vision of using the computer as an interactive
communication tool began to take shape after the end of World
War II. Toward the end of his naval career, he read Vannevar
Bush’s article “As We May Think” that was published in the July
1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly. The article inspired Engelbart to
pursue a career developing better communication and
“knowledge” tools. Bush published the article as a reflection on
how technology could help solve problems in a postwar society.
During the war, Bush realized that the amount of scientific data
being written and collected was growing at an accelerated pace.
As a result, he believed that people would need new types of
knowledge tools to locate, organize, coordinate, analyze, and
navigate through the increasing volumes of research information.
In “As We May Think,” Bush described a hypothetical device
called a memex (memory extender) as an example of the type of
knowledge tools that should be developed. The memex was a work-
station conceived to use a variety of analog technologies such as
microfilm readers and storage. Bush described it as follows:
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his
books, records, and communications, and which is mecha-
nized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and
flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be oper-
ated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at
which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens,
on which material can be projected for convenient reading.
There is a keyboard, and set of buttons and levers. Other-
wise it looks like an ordinary desk.
Bush’s memex was envisioned to aid the process of thinking
through a mechanized indexing system. Different pieces of infor-
mation in the system could be connected by creating individual-
ized associative trails. A trail was similar to the trail of mental
association in a person’s mind. Used as an augmentation tool, the
memex would supplement and extend human memory capabilities
and reflect the associative nature of the human mind. In the fol-
lowing passage, Bush describes the process of linking trails of
When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the
name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Be-
fore him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adja-
cent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a
number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate
one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and
the items are permanently joined.
“As We May Think” was not predicting the future, but creating
Bush’s compelling vision of information technology influ-
enced future generations of computer pioneers. After reading
Bush’s article, Engelbart went back to school to finish his BS in
electrical engineering and graduated in 1948. Afterward, he took
an engineering job at the Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain
View, California, with the National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics (the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration, NASA). After working at Ames for several
years, he got engaged to be married. But the Monday after he
became engaged, Engelbart realized that he had achieved all of his
life goals—get an education, get a steady job, and get married.
Now, at the age of 25, he began to think about a new goal for his
life. He later described his decision-making process as follows:
I dismissed money as a goal fairly early in the decision
process. The way I grew up, if you had enough money to
get by, that was okay; I never knew anybody who was rich.
But by 1950, it looked to me like the world was changing so
fast, and our problems were getting so much bigger, that I
decided to look for a goal in life that would have the most
payoff to mankind.
It looked to me like the world was
changing so fast, and our problems
were getting so much bigger, that I
decided to look for a goal in life that
would have the most payoff to mankind.
For several months while driving to work, Engelbart contem-
plated his skills and the various kinds of goals he could pursue.
He was also looking for a cause that could utilize his engineering
education and his interest in computers. While searching for his
new goal, Engelbart realized that he ran into the same issue time
and time again. Like Bush, he understood that humankind was
moving into an era in which the complexity and urgency of global
difficulties were surpassing the traditional tools for dealing with
problems. Engelbart recalled:
I had this kooky thing happen to me in 1951 where I de-
cided to commit my career to trying to help mankind be
able to cope better with complexity and urgency and the
problems of the world. I had an image of sitting in front of a
display and working with a computer interactively. I had
been a radio and radar technician during World War II, so I
knew that any signals that came out of a machine could
drive any kind of hardware—they could drive whatever you
wanted on a display. But I really didn’t know how a com-
puter worked. Still, I though, “Boy! That’s just great!” The
images of the different symbologies that you could employ,
and other people sitting at workstations connected to the
same complex, and working in a close, collaborative way.
And I just said, “Well, that’s something I can pursue as an
electrical engineer, and maybe try to follow as a goal.”
Based on his experiences as a radar technician, Engelbart envi-
sioned using computers as a technology to interact with informa-
tion displayed on screens. At the time, Engelbart had never
worked with a computer. But, he had read about them in books.
From his radar experience, Engelbart understood that if computers
could show information on punch cards and paper printouts, they
could write or draw information on a display screen. He saw the