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Silicon Valley Finds Its Past Is A Blast


Digital Dispatch

Silicon Valley Finds Its Past Is a Blast

In Silicon Valley, insiders rarely waste an Internet minute on the notion that the past is prologue. This is a place where epochs are divided by events such as Yahoo! Inc.'s initial public offering. The Valley's habit of rarely looking back is no doubt an outgrowth of its risk-taking culture, where failures of the past aren't typically examined or penalized--but rather seen as badges of honor for the next try. The problem is that history here, as anywhere, offers lessons, be they the tale of a misunderstood visionary or the trials of an entrepreneur struggling to stay afloat.

Now, there are signs that history is becoming hipper in digital culture. For one thing, the Valley's pioneers are aging, endowing things, even dying. Tributes and obituaries are awakening memories of the complex ecology that propels innovation and inspiring those who have made it to try to impart their hard-won wisdom to the Net generation.

There has long been a stalwart electronic-hobbyist community here that collected antique equipment and extolled the virtues of vacuum tubes. But recently, there is a veritable bloom of museum projects devoted to high tech, from the glitzy Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., to Intel Corp.'s interactive museum in Sunnyvale. There also are several museums on the drawing board, including a new home for the Computer Museum's History Center, currently stored at Moffet Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif. The collection includes huge tube-packed mainframes that once tracked Russian missiles during the cold war and a Honeywell "kitchen computer" marketed in 1965 for $10,000 (apron, cookbook, and a two-week programming course included).

Even Hollywood thinks the Valley has history worth capturing on celluloid. Actor Tom Hanks's production company and Turner Broadcasting Co. have been researching proj-ects on the early days of Apple Computer Inc. And secretive screenwriters were among the first to sign up for a new limo service offering "technical-history tours" of Silicon Valley. Warning: Early reviews said enduring the region's notorious traffic jams as a guide reads digi-tidbits is as titillating as it sounds.E-MAIL PARTY. To be sure, high tech's history is a complex one, with old machines making great props for amazing stories of the people who built them. Fortunately, new technology is starting to lend a hand in telling those stories. Case in point: In December, about 1,500 Valley denizens gathered at Stanford University for a conference promoted almost entirely via E-mail and simultaneously broadcast over the Internet by Stanford's Silicon Valley Archives project and Menlo Park's Institute for the Future. The rallying point: the 30-year anniversary of an event that computer scientists still refer to as "Engelbart's demo."

The lights in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium dimmed, and a grainy black-and-white film began to roll. A clean-cut young man in a headset straight out of The Right Stuff's Mission Control scenes appeared: He is Doug Engelbart, then a Stanford Research Institute computer scientist. The audience viewed excerpts from a 90-minute demonstration he provided to the nation's top computer brains in San Francisco in 1968 that rocked their world. Renowned Valley creative force Alan Kay, formerly of Xerox PARC and Apple and now vice-president for research at Walt Disney Co., later confided to the Stanford audience how, in 1968, he trudged out of his grad-student digs at the University of Utah with a 103 degree fever to fly to San Francisco.

Engelbart is shown on film describing new ways of interacting with computers. The audience had never heard of mice or of men who could imagine communicating with computers any way other than with punch cards. Among the innovations Engelbart unveiled that day: the "mouse" his team invented, a keyboard to allow batting words into computers, and the fledgling ARPAnet project designed to connect computers together for communication. Sound familiar? It was the forerunner of the Internet.

In the demo, Engelbart also sketched out a slew of other software developments that we now take for granted, including onscreen text-editing, windows, groupware, and an early version of hyperlinking. Engelbart made a passionate case that computers should empower people by connecting them, amplifying their individual capability. In 1968, he had already looked past the PC to the Internet--a notion that makes Steven P. Jobs's later visions of empowering people with PCs sound warmed-over.

For some computer scientists, Engelbart's visions were irresistible: Charles Irby, a technical wizard with 30 years of experience on advanced computing projects at such pioneering Silicon Valley companies as Xerox PARC and Metaphor told the Stanford audience that he showed up at Engelbart's door the morning after the demo and begged for a job. But to others, Engelbart was unfathomable. Said an elderly man in the audience who was a former colleague of Engelbart's at SRI: "The way he talked, well, really, he was kind of a weirdo. You'd ask Doug something, and he would just go on and on."

Engelbart has long maintained that his contemporaries just didn't get his message. "The prevailing picture of computers in the 1970s became automating the office. That paradigm killed us and put back the development of the Web for years," Engelbart told the audience in December. Indeed, fresh-faced 27-year-old Marc Andreessen, who helped create the Web browser Mosaic and co-founded Netscape Communications Corp., sat humbly on a panel that day and acknowledged that most of the notions central to the idea of Web browsers were envisioned by Engelbart--three years before Andreessen was born."PRIMORDIAL SOUP." Today, the much-admired Engelbart is a 72-year-old patrician with snow-white hair. He was joined by a half-dozen members of the demo team, who complained that the industry should have worked harder to make using computers easier and more productive. "From the social side of all this, it's still primordial soup," lamented Engelbart's former colleague Don Nielson, a retired SRI vice-president.

Engelbart's team eventually scattered to the four corners of the Valley, and he toiled on through a series of mostly unremarkable jobs at McDonnell Douglas Corp. and elsewhere. Today, he's still pursuing his goals of helping people solve complex problems by using computers to augment human intelligence at his Bootstrap Institute, housed at mouse-developer Logitech.

Although Engelbart's technical innovations fared far better than his most profound dreams, his ideas had resonance. Kay says the 1968 demo awakened computer scientists to what was possible: "It was the romance of humanity thinking its way out of its genetic structure. It was Moses opening the Red Sea," Kay told the Stanford crowd. As he recalled the help Engelbart's team had given him as a young computer scientist, Kay's voice broke, and he had to pause for a few moments. "That's the great thing about this industry," he finally choked out. "The technology's one thing, but you meet the most fantastic human beings."

Geniuses, visionaries, pioneers, weirdos. Hulking vacuum-tube racks that helped wage the cold war. They're all part of Silicon Valley's rich digital history. Quite a few things worth knowing, it turns out, actually predated Yahoo!'s IPO.BY JOAN O'C. HAMILTONReturn to top


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