I was moved by this bit from John Markoff’s “What the Dormouse Said”, a tale of 1960’s counter culture and how it helped create the personal computer:
Getting engaged precipitated a deep crisis for Doug Engelbart. The day he proposed, he was driving to work, feeling excited, when it suddenly struck him that he really had no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He stopped the car and pulled over and thought for a while.
He was dumbstruck to realize that there was nothing that he was working on that was even vaguely exciting. He liked his colleagues, and Ames was in general a good place to work, but nothing there captured his spirit.
It was December 1950, and he was twenty-five years old. By the time he arrived at work, he realized that he was on the verge of accomplishing everything that he had set out to accomplish in his life, and it embarrassed him. “My God, this is ridiculous, no goals,” he said to himself.
That night, when he went home, he began thinking systematically about finding an idea that would enable him to make a significant contribution in the world. He considered general approaches, from medicine to studying sociology or economics, but nothing resonated. Then, within an hour, he was struck in a series of connected flashes of insight by a vision of how people could cope with the challenges of complexity and urgency that faced all human endeavors. He decided that if he could create something to improve the human capability to deal with those challenges, he would have accomplished something fundamental.
In a single stroke, Engelbart experienced a complete vision of the information age. He saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols. (Later, it occurred to him that the idea of the screen probably came into his mind as a result of his experience with the radar consoles he had worked on in the navy.) He would create a workstation for organizing all of the information and communications needed for any given project. In his mind, he saw streams of characters moving on the display. Although nothing of the sort existed, it seemed the engineering should be easy to do and that the machine could be harnessed with levers, knobs, or switches. It was nothing less than Vannevar Bush’s Memex, translated into the world of electronic computing.
This bit resonated with me for several reasons, one of which will become clear in the coming weeks. But the really important thing isn’t just that Engelbart recognized a disastifaction with his life and how to fix it. It’s not that he had a stroke of vision to invent so much of what modern personal computers would (mostly incorrectly) base off. What’s really important is that he then went on to see his vision through.
Remember, this epiphany happened to him in 1950, and his groundbreaking “Mother of all Demos” presentation wasn’t until 1968. It might have seemed like something so grand had to come all at once (especially considering how long ago it was), but it took nearly two decades to be reached.