Silicon Age: The Mother of All Demos — and my how the world changed — intro lecture 6 from my Interaction Design History course

This is a short intro as the content of the videos covers everything needed to think about in this section.

The original computer mouse (the wooden box looking thing). Erik Pitti from San Diego, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

So far in our journey we’ve seen the evolution of symbols and pictographs into our current alphabets, as well as the birth of printing, type design and graphic design. We’ve explored the rise of industrial design, efficiency with equipment and the beginning of human factors and design to fit people and improve processes. But we haven’t really talked about computers yet.

Up to this point, computers had evolved into large machines that took up whole rooms and required people to write programs on punch cards that then were given to an operator. You might wait a few days for the output of that programming before you even knew if it worked.

In the 1960’s during the space race, computers were actual women (called computers — see the movie Hidden Figures). These women were mathematicians who calculated all the trajectories for the astronauts with more precision and speed than the large rooms of computer equipment. If this interests you and you like Science Fiction, I highly recommend the short story The Lady Astronaut of Mars and then The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Despite the delays and size and inability to spend extensive amounts of time on computers at the time, people still were creative, they played games, they exchanged messages across universities and collaborated on programs and ideas even though this was all mediated by time delays and punch cards. I had my students read a little about this in the People’s History of Computing by Joy Lisi Rankin, which provides alternate stories of the development of computers and computer design to the traditional Silicon Valley mythology.

In 1969, the future of computing changed forever, when Douglas Englebart delivered what became called “The Mother of All Demos.”

To wrap up this week, I had my students watch the videos from The Mother of All Demos. They were only required to watch the first of the 3. It’s a fascinating look at the prototyped concept of a mouse, keyboard and computer system that is the precursor to the WYSIWIG systems we work with today. Some things are still so similar 50 years later.

The Mother of All Demos part 1 (YouTube)
The Mother of All Demos part 2 (YouTube)
The Mother of All Demos part 3 (YouTube)

I also had my students read the Thesis paper by J.C.R. Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis written in 1960, which takes a future-thinking point-of -view of how people will use machines and how the man-made systems of computers will blend with human operators in such a way as to make it difficult to separate in analysis. And they had to read about Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System (pdf) written in 1963 by Ivan Edward Sutherland describing a proto GUI (Graphical User Interface).

The question for my students to ponder for each of these (videos and writings) was how much has come to pass, how much is still in an early state despite our technological advances, how prescient were these technologists and theorists about how things have evolved? Where were they right and where were they wrong?

Note: All these lectures were delivered via video with related slide decks of images. Following the intro, students had a series of readings and videos to watch related to the topics covered in the lecture or the overall time frame. They were then given a set of prompts to stimulate their thinking and writings which ended up in a class blog.

Industrial Age
Industrial Age: Mid-Century Designers, Designing For People, intro lecture 5
Industrial Age: Between the Wars, intro lecture 4
Industrial Revolution & Manifestos, intro lecture3

In the Beginning
Read intro lecture 2 — In the Beginning Part 2
Read intro lecture 1 — In the Beginning Part 1

Setting the Stage
See the visual syllabus and how I approached putting this class together