The Scoop Deck

Computer pioneer, former sailor had quite the WWII send-off

Former sailor Doug Engelbart, 1925-2013 (Associated Press photo)

Doug Engelbart died Wednesday. He was 88.

It’s not a household name by any stretch, but if you clicked, pointed, tapped or scrolled your way to what you’re reading presently, it should be: As pointed out in the headlines of multiple obituaries, Engelbart invented the computer mouse.

His contributions to the computer field went far beyond what was once a wood-encased block connected to a primitive CPU — early advances in computer networking that led the way from vacuum-tube-filled, punch-card-fed monsters to the sleek machines we use today.

Engelbart’s first computer mouse, left, sits with a “state-of-the-art model” — circa 1998, anyway — on the mouse’s 30th anniversary. (Associated Press photo by Julie Stupsker)

What was his inspiration for such developments? Well, according to his New York Times obituary, linked above, it may have come, at least in part, from a Navy radar screen.

In a 1994 interview with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Engelbart describes his Navy training, which began when he was drafted for World War II service at the end of his sophomore year at Oregon State. He learned the ins and outs of emerging radar technology and worked with radio systems — where connectivity came before all else.

It was a fitting entry into the world of electronics. Some might say his entry into the war effort wasn’t bad, either. From the interview, edited for clarity:

“I was sent over to the Philippines, and the interesting thing about that is, we were loaded onto the ship in San Francisco Harbor and going to be sent out there to help … one of the places in the war where Navy was taking a lot of casualties. … The kamikazes were hitting right under the bridge, and that was happening to communication centers. So, if you were one of the technicians working in there, you were wounded. But anyway, the ship backed out of its berth and started around San Francisco and we were all up on deck watching things. … A bunch of whistles started going off and firecrackers going off and we thought everyone was cheering and we were thinking, “Do they do this for every ship going away?”

Then the captain says, ‘Japan just surrendered.’”

Despite protests from the crew, the ship deployed anyway, Engelbart said, heading across the Pacific to help with postwar efforts. He stayed in the Navy until 1946, he said, before returning to Oregon State to complete his degree.

From radar tech to computer-interface pioneer. For more on Engelbart, use that mouse to click here.

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