How Doug Engelbart taught students about how computers think

Around 1960 Doug Engelbart was a young electrical engineer at Stanford Research Institute, invited by several local schools and clubs to come teach them how computers worked. Instead of giving lectures on the topic, he devised a parlor game where the players acted out the basic computer operations. He wrote up a tutorial on how to play the game, and now for the first time in 56 years, you can play the game yourself, teach it at parties and schools, and let us know how it goes!


Doug Engelbart teaching his ‘computer game’ to students (circa 1960)

One variation of the game used four players standing in a row. Doug would instruct each of them to either raise or lower their arm depending on certain conditions. Each participant was given different conditions to watch for (their “signal”). When they got their special signal, they were to switch their arm position up or down (i.e. from an “UP state” to a “DOWN state” or vice versa). They were each to await their own special signal, ignoring all others.

For example, labeling the players from left to right with a letters “A” through “D”, the rightmost player (“D”) was instructed to switch whenever “C” (the player on his/her left) switched from UP to DOWN.  “C” was to switch whenever “B” switched from DOWN to UP. “B” was to switch whenever “A” switched from UP to DOWN. And “A” was to switch whenever the Instructor made a certain noise, for example clapped his/her hands. Everyone starts with their arms in a DOWN state.

Ready? Begin! Engelbart claps his hands, so “A” switches states (from DOWN to UP). No one else moves, as they are all still awaiting their own signals. Engelbart claps again, so “A” switches states (this time from UP to DOWN) — and that’s what “B” was waiting for! So “B” switches states (from DOWN to UP) — and that’s what “C” was waiting for! So “C” switches states (from DOWN to UP). “D” has not moved a muscle, still watching “C” intently for that one signal that has not yet happened. Engelbart claps again, so “A” switches (from DOWN to UP), and no one else moves. Engelbart claps again, so “A” switches (from UP to DOWN), which signals “B” to switch (from UP to DOWN), while “C” just waits unmoving, and so does “D”. Engelbart claps again, so “A” switches (from DOWN to UP), and no one else moves. Engelbart claps again, and here it comes — “A” switches (from UP to DOWN), which signals “B” to switch (from DOWN to UP), which signals “C” to switch (from UP to DOWN), which finally signals “D” to switch (from DOWN to UP)! And so on. It gets exciting as they get more comfortable with it, and players and audience alike start to see a pattern emerging…

It’s actually much easier to play the game than to follow the ‘blow by blow’ description, because as a player you only need remember one simple instruction: watch for your signal, and switch.

And that, my friends, is how the computer operates at its most basic, except that the ‘player’ elements inside the computer are programmed to switch between “1” and “0” when they get the signal they are instructed to wait for.

For more specifics on this and other variations of the game, as well as Engelbart’s anecdotal experience and tips for teaching the game, including what the games reveal to the students, read his tutorial Games That Teach the Fundamentals of Computer Operation, published in the IRE Transactions on Electronic Computers, 1961. Engelbart was at the time an active member of the IRE, or Institute for Radio Engineers, and served as Vice Chair of its local chapter.

Doug Engelbart taught the game to a variety of laypeople, at a variety of venues, including nearby Stanford University. He received more correspondence and queries about this paper than he did for any other he published before or since. Based on the letters it’s clear that others taught the game in other parts of the country. So there are probably people out there who actually played the game. And now you can just click on a hypertext link  with your mouse and get your own copy on the internet.

Author’s Note: Last week I was honored to host a group of visiting Engelbart Scholars from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to tour the Engelbart Archives. We spent several days immersed in my father’s papers at Stanford, where we discovered the many letters he’d received in 1960-1961 re: “Games that Teach…”, and notes he had compiled on the game. Then much to our delight, our visiting scholar and ’embedded librarian’ on the tour, Alice Campbell, found reprints of the actual article in a folder labelled “Patents” (i.e. mislabelled). I was sooo thrilled! This whole thread had started for me years ago, with my dad telling me about this game he’d devised and taught years ago, which he had clearly enjoyed. Years later, after he retired, I was sifting through archive photos at the office and came across an action photo of him teaching the game (included above). I felt so lucky to have discovered that one artifact depicting that part of his life, that side of him as a person. Then after he died, while going through my parents’ things I came across an old newspaper clipping about my dad teaching the game (included above) — a little gem amidst all the stuff my siblings and I were sifting through.  But now, discovering that he wrote it all up in a tutorial in 1960, that was published by a professional society the following year, and that received all those wonderful letters, and now to find the actual paper he wrote. So now here it all is from us to you in a single blogpost to savor.  We’d love to hear your thoughts!

For more on the Engelbart Scholars program see my blogpost and video short from last year’s tour Engelbart Scholars tour with Doug Engelbart Institute.

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