Visionary 1968 technology demo re-created as musical theater reports that in December 1968, computer scientist Douglas Engelbart had a complex system of newly developed hardware and software that he wanted to show off to the biannual meeting of the Joint Computer Conference, a gathering of researchers and manufacturers. But the conference was at the Civic Center in San Francisco, Engelbart’s work was at Stanford — and the technology for relaying video across long distances was in its infancy.

“At that point, remote television was done by direct video links,” recalls William English, the engineer who assisted Engelbart in what would turn out to be a historic event in the history of computing. “One guy on the team — I wish I could remember who it was — took on the challenge, and found a particular point up on Skyline Boulevard where he had a clear line of sight to both Menlo Park and the Civic Center.

“So we sent a couple of trucks to park up there, and they would relay the signals back and forth.”

The demonstration that that hack made possible would revolutionize the world of computing. In the space of 90 minutes, as English sat at the back of the hall at the computer controls, Engelbart gave the world its first public glimpses of windows, the mouse, word processing, hypertext links and even video conferencing — all the essential elements of today’s personal computer landscape.

This week, Engelbart’s display will be re-created in musical form on the stage of Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall. “The Demo,” a musical-theater work by the composer-performers Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill, promises to be both a celebration of the original showcase — a tour de force of showmanship that passed into tech lore as “the mother of all demos” — and an embodiment of everything that Engelbart’s research team made possible.


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