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GUI Golden Jubilee:
the 55th Anniversary of the Graphical User Interface

Author Alexey Baykov

Decoding the GUI Values & Potential for Boosting Mankind's Mind

Most contemporary users probably think that graphical user interface (GUI) was created by Apple or Microsoft. Fewer people, mostly professionals working in usability, user experience, or HCI (and  those interested in the history of Apple) know that GUI was created by Xerox. But almost none of us know that it was created even before then.

In 1968, in the laboratory of Stanford University, supported by NASA, Doug Engelbart led a team of scientists worked for 20 years on a secret computer systems development project. When they introduced their results in front of a large number of scientists, it really was one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

On this day, December 8, 1968, they demonstrated a computer system environment, called NLS (oNLine System), which included a brand new operating system and a universal programming language, which supported communication between multiple computers - or rather, it supported a network. Now this presentation is known as "The Mother of All Demos".

Doug Engelbart and his team presented the computer, which allowed users to enter information with a help of a standard keyboard and a so-called “chordal keyboard” with five buttons and indicator of XY-position. This was the three-key “mouse”, invented by Douglas Engelbart himself.

Through research in the laboratory, Engelbart demonstrated that the “mouse” was the most natural device for the human arm to work with, compared with light pens, touch screens and other manipulators. In terms of functionality the first “mouse” had no differences from the modern “mouse,” including the ability for the screen to display a cursor showing the location of the virtual pointer.

The demonstration in 1968 also included: the concept of hypertext links, full-screen text formatting, context-sensitive help system, network co-work on the document , e-mail and instant messaging, and even teleconferencing system (or rather, online chat).

Thus, prototypes of many technologies that modern people now enjoy, sitting at home or at work, first publically appeared in the NLS in 1968.

The development team combined the most advanced technologies into a unified system of human-computer interaction, which they conceived as a means to enhance and improve human intelligence. These ideas were set out in Englebart’s abstract “Augmenting Human Intellect,” in 1962.

In it, he emphasized that computer technologies can provide powerful means of improving human intelligence performance, "boosting mankind's capability for coping with complex, urgent problems."

After the demonstration of NLS there were a lot of talk , but for unknown reasons the project didn’t have financing and was closed. The developers team scattered to different companies. Some of the staff went to Xerox PARC, where the GUI was improved. But Douglas Engelbart was left in the shadows, and only 30 years later he was acknowledged simply as a creator of a “mouse”, (but that is another tragic story).

Over time, the interface was improved by developers from his original team and others, working at Xerox PARC, where they developed the concept of windows, icons, menus, toolbars ,  and formulated the definition of “graphical user interface”,  first published in 1974.  

The concept of NLS passed from hand to hand and fine-tuned by Xerox, Apple, IBM, Microsoft , Apple again, Google, and so on.

The film Pirates of the Silicon Valley shows Steve Jobs “capturing” the GUI from Xerox, using it for the Apple Macintosh, and creating not just a new business but a new culture of computer civilization. But Steve Jobs wasn’t just a businessman or great manager, he felt the Soul of the NLS, intuitively, unconsciously, or by studying D.Engelbart’s work, but he never mentioned that. It’s not by chance Steve Jobs made a speech at the same Stanford University where Doug Engelbart worked.

As most of us know, in 1985 Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, but this was a real chance to re-think the idea of the computer and he used it.

Taking his time, Steve Jobs revealed the basic idea undelied oNLine System, created by Doug Engelbart. In the film Memory & Imagination, Steve Jobs said: “What a computer is to me is - it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

Steve Jobs started a new company, called NeXT, and again created a new business sector and new culture of super-computers for university education. So computers from mass-consumption returned to their source.

We know the proverb “There's never a new fashion but it's old” coined a long time ago by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 –1400). To recognize the deep meaning that underpins the great innovations, we should go to the roots, we should feel the Soul of the source idea.

We should come back to the basics of “oNLine System”, “Graphical User Interface”, “Human-Computer Interaсtion” and “User-Centered Design”

And we’ll see in the center there’s a human, his intellect and its evolution and development.

According to Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect”, the computer is meant not to replace human mind, but is meant for its broadening and deepening and we should improve not the process, but the participant of the process.

Businesses often use great ideas for their own benefit, creating mass-culture and simplifying the meaning. Their user interfaces adapt to the target audiences and markets, to manage human intelligence for commercial purposes. These days, most people can’t remember even a single telephone number or a simple address, always looking in the screen of a gadget, speaking by quotes, in primitive frame of 140-symbols, always referring to web-sources, unable to retell information in their own words, lacking analytical skills and having “multi-tasking disease”, which was researched at UCLA and by myself.

Thus, most  user experience experts and GUI designers, especially web and mobile, often without even realizing it, brainwash people’s minds, giving them “intelligent spikes”, rather than directing their knowledge and mind power to develop their intellect.

Even now, many scientists at the universities work on improving the concept of GUI in such areas as “Zooming User Interface“ and “3D User Interface”, but it is an outer shell without the Soul.  The Soul of the NLS and the GUI environment is not only to provide the best opportunities for information management, but for management of intelligence for the sake of improving the human mind.


Alexey Baykov
User Experience Expert, PhD (LinkedIn)

The original article written in 2008 for the GUI Birthday: 45th Anniversary of the Graphical User Interface

Written for User eXperience Professionals Association

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