Doug Englebart 1925 – 2013. The Father of Search

On 1 July I released the first issue of Search Log, and one of the articles was about the early history of search and in particular the role of Doug Engelbart. This visionary genius died on 2 July leaving a quite staggering legacy of achievement and wisdom. Much has already been written about his life and work but little about his pioneering work in the development of search technology. This blog uses the text of the article from Search Log.

The story starts when Doug Engelbart began the Augmented Human Intellect Program at Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, California. In June 1962 Charlie Bourne, who had been a student of Engelbart’s at the University of California Berkeley in 1957, joined the AHI team. In 1958 Engelbart and Bourne co-authored a SRI paper entitled Facets of the Technical Information Problem, which in my opinion in terms of vision  is quite the equal of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 paper on the Memex machine. It is well worth reading the Engelbart/Bourne paper. In 1963 Bourne started work on a project funded by US Air Force Electronic Systems Division to investigate remote online computer access to databases. The total funding was $39,000, which was quite a sizeable project in 1963. Bourne looked at a number of batch search applications, and working with programmer Len Chaitin implemented an online search application using a Q-32 computer developed by Systems Development Corporation based in Santa Monica. The Q-32 was one of the first computers to support online remote access and computer-to-computer communication.

Records of internal reports and other documents were either keyboarded or loaded onto paper-tape typewriters and then converted to magnetic tape for transfer to SDC. Each tape drive was able to store around 1500 three-page items. The data entry software developed by SRI supported tasks such as Insert, Delete, Move and copy and also had a spell checker and so was the forerunner of word processing software. The co-sponsor of the SRI and SDC projects was J.C.R.Licklider, widely regarded as one of the founders of both interactive computing and of Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet. The initial online experiments were conducted in June 1963 and developed rapidly during the course of the year. Towards the end of the year a CRT terminal was being used rather than a keyboard and printer.

Somewhat surprisingly the SRI involvement in online processing and retrieval was not continued after the initial project was completed at the end of 1963.  Charles Bourne went on to play an important role at Lockheed Corporation in the development of online search services for the science community.  However the centre of search arguably shifted to the East Coast and the work of Gerard Salton, the subject of a profile in the July issue of Search Log.

Martin White