It’s with great sadness that I have learned, that a personal hero of mine, Douglas Carl Engelbart has passed await, albeit at a respectable age of 88. However, I’m even more saddened by the way general media is presenting him in obituaries. Lacking rudimentary understanding of Engelbart’s approach and goals, they reduce his intellect, achievements and work to that of a simple inventor of the early personal computing era scoping him as merely “the inventor of the mouse.”

But, as I tried to sit down and figure out how to describe who Engelbart really was, I realized, that the general media is probably well excused. Hell, even as a kid who’s been heads down in computers since he was 8, it wasn’t until a few years ago, where I started to look beyond modern computing as a mere tool, that the seminal nature of Engelbart started to dawn on me. Worse still, it wasn’t until I read Bret Victor’s wonderful piece that the concept of Engelbart became clear (despite the somewhat fuzzy conclusion):

The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What did he build?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to admire him, to stand in awe of his achievements, to worship him as a hero. But worship isn’t useful to anyone. Not you, not him.

The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.

Engelbart wasn’t just another gold rush inventor. He doesn’t fit inside the same boxes as even people as great as Steve Jobs. No, he was nothing less than an amazingly intellectual being who, as one of the first, saw the mainstream availability of computing not as the amazing achievement in itself but rather a means to augment the capabilities of humans. There is no denying that computers truly have transformed the lives of humans and our abilities to collectively solve problems — and probably far more than even young Engelbart could ever have imagined. But, the popular, naive deduction that this is a natural result of the technological development that endured, is nothing short of wrong.

As Bret Victor so concisely puts it; “Engelbart devoted his life to a human problem, with technology falling out as part of a solution.” But, it wasn’t just Engelbart’s technology that “fell off.” A pioneering thought leader as a natural effect of the beautiful purity of the intent of his work, he was and remains both aspirational and inspirational to the technology world as a whole.

His legacy isn’t hypertext, the mouse or any other single piece of work — rather, it’s the total permeation of the technology world with the intent that lead to these almost insignificant pieces. He truly was one of the very few pioneers of augmentation, history has ever known.