A Tribute to Bill English (WKE)

On behalf of Doug Engelbart and the Doug Engelbart Institute, we bid farewell to Bill English, one of the greats in Doug’s seminal research, who died on July 26 in San Rafael, CA.  The NY Times has published a wonderful obituary which also ran in Bill’s hometown paper, links below. To that we’ll add a bit more embellishment on his seminal contributions to Doug’s research at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). In addition to his brilliant and indispensable accomplishments making the impossible work elegantly in the lab, and in the ‘Mother of All Demos’, Bill co-authored two papers and won two awards with Doug.  Highlights follow.

1960ish. Bill joins SRI. Bill joined SRI’s Computer Techniques Lab circa 1960, working initially on Hew Crane’s All-Magnetic Logic Computer project.  Doug had joined SRI in 1957, and also worked on Hew’s team. In 1959 Doug began a half-time pursuit with some internal funding, and later full-time with matching Air Force funds, fleshing out his vision and a framework for Augmenting Human Intellect, which SRI published in 1962. The overarching goal: “improving intellectual effectiveness” to approach and solve complex challenges, because mankind’s “population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity.” Doug’s ‘manifesto’ led to modest funding from ARPA and NASA to begin exploring some of the foundational technology needed to pursue his larger vision. 

1964. Evaluating pointing devices for display terminals.  One early project was to test a selection of pointing devices, and determine which were most efficient for interacting with display technology. Bill English, who was by now the Chief Engineer in SRI’s Computer lab, joined Doug on the project. They set up a simple text-editing scenario on a computer display, to test the pointing devices, evaluating several off-the-shelf devices like the joy stick for speed and accuracy, and some they’d come up with in-house, like the “mouse”. Doug had previously jotted down his idea for a mouse, Bill turned that into a working prototype (with the housing carved out of wood as shown at left). They pitted it against the other devices, and the mouse won hands down.  They submitted their findings in 1965, later published by IEEE in 1967, and the mouse became standard in their lab from that day forward. Here’s a fabulous account of this study and the mouse invention and more in the WIRED article: How Doug Engelbart Pulled off the Mother of All Demos, by Adam Fisher. Check out our exhibit on the First Mouse for archive footage and photos, stories, mouse patent, and more. 

Watch Bill and Doug discussing this study with John Markoff in 1999:

 

1967. Computer display innovations for the SDS940. By 1967 Doug’s lab was acquiring its own time-sharing computer, the SDS940, to accommodate their expanding research team and expanding online work environment. Bill English worked his magic to devise a way get high-speed, high-resolution display imagery working on up to a dozen relatively inexpensive display workstations simultaneously, using TV cameras. In parallel, chief architect Jeff Rulifson’s software team was porting over the software, while considerably expanding its feature set. See Pioneering Firsts for a birds eye view of their research scope at the time. 

Watch Doug present Bill’s elegant hardware design, using Jeff’s software, one year later:

 

1967. Special conference room. Also this year their ARPA sponsors were due for a site visit. Doug wanted to offer them a hands-on experience of the system throughout the day.  So Bill worked his magic and rigged up a computer-facilitated conference room (the first of its kind, to our knowledge) where they could display agenda and group notes on the fly, while demonstrating key aspects of their research. A mouse was placed at each workstation enabling participants to point and click.  

1968. Demo. By now their research system was in full operational use throughout their lab, for all aspects of their work, including design and development, memos and messaging, collaborative authorship, and computer supported software engineering. Best practices for individual and team work were co-evolved with the technology. By the Spring of 1968, they were routinely giving demos to all the visitors in their lab, and Doug felt the time had come to present their work to a wider audience. The upcoming 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) in nearby San Francisco would be the perfect venue.

Jeff and his team went to work extending and enhancing the software features, while Bill and his team set about making the demo possible logistically — they would need several workstations at the conference site, TV cameras pointed at Doug as well as the demo participants at the lab, two-way live video and audio feeds linking the two sites, and a master control booth installed at the conference venue from which Bill could orchestrate all the moving pieces real time, largely driven through the SDS940 back at the lab. They would also need to borrow an enormous projector sufficient to project Doug’s monitor onto a 32-foot projection screen for the size audience anticipated. Bill and his team got it all hooked up and working, tested and retested, and it all worked in a dress rehearsal at the lab.

On the afternoon of December, 9, 1968, the Civic Auditorium at the FJCC was packed, the live 90-minute presentation was a stunning success, and Doug and his team received a rousing standing ovation. Alan Kay, who had flown in from Utah to attend the session, and had previously seen a demo at Doug’s lab some months before, later said it was “like Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Watch the Demo Trailer for a taste of what they pulled off that day.

You’ll find a fabulous account in this WIRED article: How Doug Engelbart Pulled off the Mother of All Demos, by Adam Fisher. See our Doug’s Great Demo exhibit for archive footage, photos, story, links, see especially the section on Reflecting on the Demo for select interviews and panel discussions of original team members.

Watch Bill and Doug discussing the demo with John Markoff in 1999:

 

1969. Demo. The following year in October 1969, Doug and his team presented at the Conference on Information Science, and again Bill English orchestrated all the logistical details, again all went smoothly from beginning to end. See our Demo Sequel exhibit for archive footage, photos, conference program, etc.  

 

Awards

1990. ACM Software System Award. Awarded to Doug Engelbart along with Bill English and Jeff Rulifson, the chief architects from his historic SRI lab, for their pioneering work on the early versions of the NLS system. Presented at the ACM computer conference in San Antonio, TX, March 5, 1991, as “a fitting recognition of the importance of this seminal work on interactive system design.” 

1968. FJCC Demo Award.  Following the Demo, Doug received on behalf of his team a special trophy from the FJCC program organizers, with the inscription “For Doug and his Associates: Thanks for your most unusual contribution to the success of our program.”  In 2018, the Doug Engelbart Institute commissioned two replicas of that trophy to be presented at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mother of All Demos to Bill English and Jeff Rulifson, without whom Doug’s vision could not have been realized.

In Closing

Here’s a special tribute to Bill from SRI, Bill and Doug’s employer at the time:

Press

Footnote

  • “WKE” in the Title: Note that in Doug’s lab, everyone had a “handle” or “Ident” as it was called, made up of their initials. For example, Doug’s was DCE, Jeff’s was JFR, and Bill’s WKE. In the system they developed, every document written, and every paragraph within the document, bore the Ident of the author who last modified it. As with retiring a number with a famous athlete, we have included Bill’s Ident with his name in the Title of this piece.

References

  1. How Doug Engelbart Pulled off the Mother of All Demos. Adam C. Fisher, WIRED.
    In this excerpt from Valley of Genius, author Adam Fisher sketches how Doug Engelbart came up with many of the ideas of modern computing.
  2. Display-Selection Techniques for Text Manipulation. William K. English, Douglas C. Engelbart, and Melvyn L. Berman, IEEE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, HFE-8: 1 (March 1967), pp. 5-15.
  3. A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect. Douglas C. Engelbart and William K. English, AFIPS Conference Proceedings of the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, CA, 33, December 1968, aka the paper submitted with the Mother of All Demos. Republished in Computer Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings, Irene Greif [Ed.], Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Inc., San Mateo, CA, 1988. Also republished in New Media Reader, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort [Ed.], The MIT Press, 2003, Chapters 8 and 16..

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