Douglas Engelbart, the visionary thinker who decades ago showed the world what 21st-century computing would be, died Tuesday at 88, ending a seminal Silicon Valley career of mind-boggling innovation.
The man once called "Steve Jobs' Steve Jobs" was best known for inventing the computer mouse, which allowed the masses to quite literally put their hands on computing. But his legacy, solidified in a December 1968 event now known as the "Mother of all Demos," is far more expansive.
"He was a giant," said Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI International, the prolific Menlo Park lab where Engelbart did some of his early work in the Augmentation Research Center.
Engelbart was big on the people part of the equation. He clearly saw the heartbeat behind the ones and zeros of the digital age. He believed that computers, which were primarily for crunching numbers and spitting out answers when he started his work, had the ability to empower people and enhance their intellect in ways that would improve their lives.
"He saw the computer as a power tool for boosting both individual and organizational IQ," said Andy van Dam, a computer science professor at Brown University and a friend of Engelbart's. "Doug had this vision that computers could augment human intelligence and he set about creating a system that would do that."
The world got a hint in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968, when Engelbart performed a computing demonstration that rocked the audience. Van Dam, 74, was there as Engelbart appeared with his cube-shaped mouse and proceeded to demonstrate online collaboration, real-time text editing and the use of hypertext links -- all incorporated into one computer system, and all 16 years before the first Apple (AAPL) Macintosh was unleashed.
"It was literally mind-blowing," van Dam says. "Remember, 1968, San Francisco, those were the glory days of flower power, and people were tripping on everything. Doug was tripping on technology and we in the audience also were. It was a mind-blowing demonstration far beyond anything any of us had ever seen."
And given the advances that Engelbart envisioned and helped create, van Dam finds it odd that he would be best remembered for the mouse. To say that Engelbart invented the mouse, he says, "would be like saying Henry Ford invented the fold-up top on the Model T."
Engelbart was a catalyst. That some of his ideas were not commercially adopted in the precise way he presented them is beside the point. He inspired a legion of scientists and engineers who learned from him and he pointed the way to a computing revolution, says Marc Weber, the founder and curator of the Internet history program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
"When he started in the '50s, computers were number crunchers, calculating machines," Weber said. "The people who saw what he was doing realized unambiguously that computers could be used for communication and navigating information."
He inspired an army of innovators at places like SRI and PARC, once known as Xerox PARC, where they put his ideas into practice. In fact, SRI's Carlson said, the way Engelbart worked may be as big a part of his legacy as what he worked on.
"The way he worked, in terms of rapid iteration, collaboration, multidisciplinary teams, he was a pioneer of that," Carlson said. In other words he helped teach the valley that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again -- right now and with some help.
Engelbart, who died of kidney failure at home in Atherton, according to The New York Times, grew up on a small farm in Oregon. He studied electrical engineering and worked in the electronics field while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He has been recognized with a host of awards and accolades, including the National Medal of Technology, which President Bill Clinton presented to Engelbart "for creating the boundaries of personal computing."
But his real joy, friends say, was pondering the ways humans could use computers to help solve the world's big challenges. That's sometimes overlooked in the excitement over the mouse and the other technological breakthroughs he devised to do that, says valley futurist Paul Saffo.
"We're not just saying farewell to someone who is foundational to the digital revolution," Saffo said. "It's a reminder that we need to go back and look at his work."
Many will no doubt look back for decades to come. And they will look back in wonder.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Mike Cassidy at 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Born: Jan. 30, 1925, in Portland, Ore.
Died: July 2, 2013, in Atherton
Survivors: Wife; Karen O'Leary Engelbart; daughters Gerda, Diana and Christina; son Norman.
Services: The Engelbart family has not announced any services.