Maggie Shiels

The Valley Visionaries

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 12 Dec 08, 09:25 GMT

Throughout my years as a journalist I have had the pleasure of interviewing thousands of people from all walks of life. I have also been lucky enough to quiz a couple of personal heroes including Audrey Hepburn, Gordon Moore, Steve Wozniak and Spinal Tap.

Interesting bedfellows I am sure you will agree.

The experience of meeting these people, shaking their hands and having the privilege of asking them any question under the sun has been awesome.

This week however reached a new zenith when I went to Stanford University for the 40th anniversary of the world debut of personal computing and the computer mouse.

Doug EngelbartI met the man famed for presenting "the mother of all demos" Doug Engelbart, who was being honoured. Despite his health, he graciously spoke to everyone lining up to meet him, pump his fist and get their photo taken with him. And all of this done with an incredible modesty and slight incredulity no doubt.

Just as in 1968, here in 2008 there was a standing ovation for him. While 40 years ago he probably felt relieved that everything had gone better than according to plan, this time round emotion got the better and he had to wipe away a tear or two.

There was also Bill English who invented the computer mouse along with Doug and, while holding the very first one he built, simply described it as "just a tool." His wife Roberta accompanied him to what seemed almost like a reunion of the group that helped create the first collaborative computing system.

Jeff Rulifson who is now the director of VLSI Research Group at Sun Microsystems told me about long working hours, dinner at one in the morning in a Menlo Park burger and beer joint and hanging out at his Stanford University digs drinking sherry with Doug. He also recalled a rather heated argument his wife had with Doug over the idea of using a computer to write a shopping list. "Why would you want to do that? It's useless" Jeff quoted her as having said.

Doug Engelbart demonstrationAs Doug was demonstrating the technology in San Francisco, 30 miles away in Menlo Park was one of his software engineers Bill Paxton. Today he remembered how Doug was "a voice crying in the wilderness."

The man largely credited with helping that "voice" get heard was Bob Taylor who basically greenlighted the money to pay for this project and many others.

Journalist John Markoff of the New York Times called him the "true father of the internet."

The ideas of Mr Taylor along with J. C. R. Licklidder, or Lick as he was known, led to the creation of ARPANET and later the modern internet.

At the 40th celebration he told story after story about the good old days and of the one when a "suit" came from Washington to ask the pertinent question "I want to talk about Doug - Why are you funding this guy?"

And the rest they say is history. Albeit it a history that has not been fully realised as many of these men maintain, including Doug's daughter Christina who runs the Engelbart Institute and told me "There has been such an explosion of technology but it really hasn't reached the level of potential Dad envisioned actually in the early 1960s."

What struck me throughout the day of celebrations, the archive on display and hearing these men talk about that seminal time was the cameraderie and collegiate spirit that prevailed. Everyone wanted to share. Profit was not the motivation. There was a greater goal to be achieved.

Even today as this event looked back 40 years and acknowledged that what these men set out to achieve was extraordinary in terms of technological advances, they all remain so humble and unassuming.

I am not saying that some of that spirit doesn't exist today but there is the sense that back then it was oh so very different. Call it an age of innocence but I think the futurist Paul Saffo nailed it when he said the time back then was "a blank sheet of paper" and anything was possible.

And it was all done wearing shirts and ties. Yes even in 1968, there was not a pair of chinos or a polo shirt to be found. Ah very different days indeed.


  • Comment number 1.

    Was this actually a 'nadir' or a zenith? I don't understand. As long as it was 'awesome' anyway.......

  • Comment number 2.

    Sorry to reply again, but having read this through several times I wish to remark that is the worst piece of prose I have read for a long time. Do the beeb pay for waffle like this?

    Apart from the wrong use of the word nadir how about 'And all of this done with an incredible modesty and slight incredulity no doubt.'

    Complete gibberish in my opinion.

  • Comment number 3.

    This represents a nadir in blogging...

  • Comment number 4.

    Oh dear.

    If you use a word like 'nadir' incorrectly so early in the article, you're bound to raise the hackles of the people who actually understand the meaning of the word.

    Once they've lost their confidence in you, they're hardly likely to be very impressed by the rest of the article.

  • Comment number 5.

    Whenever I want to feel depressed, I read the comments on BBC blogs.
    There are more gracious ways of pointing out mistakes and typos, you know.

  • Comment number 6.

    I feel no compulsion to be 'gracious' toward a so-called writer who doesn't understand the word 'nadir'. Sorry.

  • Comment number 7.

    You're a very angry man. Why not get some fresh air?

  • Comment number 8.

    I just think going on to a blog and commenting about grammar (or lack of) and writing style misses the point when you could be engaging with the points and issues raised. Of course we hold the BBC to good standards, but the point of the blogs is that they're written faster and are more opinionated than the normal news prose in order to promote conversation. If you're having a conversation with someone, picking up on how they said it rather than what they said is fairly rude...

    I should probably be doing some work.

  • Comment number 9.

    Which points and issues are those then?

    I'm sorry I depressed you,I have been for a nice walk by the sea, and I'm not angry.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm not angry either, I'm depressed. This post is like a lot of Maggie's - potentially great subject matter ruined by terrible execution.

    I'm not sure that the "relax, it's only a blog" argument holds much weight at the best of times, but it has even less when the 'blog' isn't being treated like a blog - Maggie posts infrequently, and I don't recall ever having seen her respond to the comments sections (though, oftentimes, there's not much interest to respond to). Infrequent posts and no interactivity isn't a blog at all, it's just a series of traditional news reports, and it's not unreasonable to expect them to display a basic command of the language.

    Anyway, I really hope this is a nadir, because then the only way left to go would be up.

  • Comment number 11.

    My apologies for mixing up the points of my celestial spheres. I should have said zenith as you guys have pointed out. It was not my intention to get under your skin in such a fashion. I really was trying to show what magnificent men these guys are and present something of the spirit of the times in which they operated which is very different from today.

    Maggie Shiels

  • Comment number 12.

    Was the use of "nadir" not really a freudian slip, perhaps, as in being fed up meeting yet more boring geeks in the name of getting a scoop?

    'S ok, Maggie, I knew what you really meant ... ;-) (ooops, better not use that anymore -- it's now trademarked -- sorry, Mr Teterin).

  • Comment number 13.

    Maggie-sorry for being horrid. At least I did read, and try my best to understand, what you wrote.

  • Comment number 14.

    Yes, there once was a time when people wore shirts and ties, and proof-read their (hand-written) articles. Today, we can blog and tweet and issue wireless updates over a 3G network using a mobile phone while listening to MP3...these are the times of multitasking and zero downtime..and do we need them! Coming back to this blog, perhaps the author should try her hand (or thumb) at tweeting..the format allows for smaller errors and more importantly, for easier corrections!


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