NLS System, Douglas Engelbart

Nitzan Hermon

Since the early days of tooling, we looked to augment our skills. To do more than our neighbor, to manipulate our surroundings and ourselves with optionality. This was particularly felt with the discovery of fire, the invention of the steam engine, or telecommunication.

However, the nature of computers, as multipurpose machines able to be programmed to perform different tasks makes them more opaque, and more subliminal in the nature of augmentation.

This work argues that there is a way in which certain processes are more augmentative than others. Some simply encrypt existing modalities, while others invent completely new ones. The former will be referred to as informational, because they allow us to move information in new and novel ways. The latter will be called transformational because they transform the capacity of the information to move meaning, and subsequently develop new modalities of thinking.

Understanding the historic context for augmentation can help in developing this vocabulary. We will look at Douglas Engelbart’s design for the oNLine System(NLS machine) as outlined in his proposal for the Air Force in 1962, and in particular his augmentation framework.

Doug Engelbart in his ARC office

Douglas C. Engelbart (1925-2013) was an American inventor, designer, and engineer. Born in Portland, Oregon, he was the middle of three children. He was called to serve in the army halfway through his undergraduate studies, and spent 2 years as a radar technician in the Philippines. That is where, as a radar operator, he discovered computers, and their potential for augmentation.

He read about Vaneever Bush – an inventor and the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during WWII. His work on the Memex machine inspired Engelbart to the possibilities of augmentative technology, especially in the context of the personal computer.


Illustration of the Memex desk, from Life magazine version of Bush’s 1945 article As We May Think” 1

While Engelbart was influenced by Vannevar Bush, and the Bell labs community at large, the turning point in that moment was the shift from augmentative technology and the augmented self.

The ARPA 2 community, which was led at the time by J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, instilled a culture that was much more open to understanding the processes of creativity and learning.

A lot of research institutes were centered around universities, and Menlo Park was one such cluster, just outside the city of San Francisco. As such these environments were in direct conversation with the techno hippie movement.

Xerox PARC 3

People like Stewart Brand – the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog – started seeing the potential of personal computing to set a new communalist vision 4, driven by technology. In Counterculture to Cyberculture 5 Fred Turner analyzes this moment in time and place:

The user-friendly, time-sharing vision of Xerox PARC and the politically empowering, information-community vision of Resource One were two sides of the same coin, Brand implied. Both groups, he suggested, were high-tech versions of the Merry Pranksters, and the computer itself was a new LSD.”

The strong relationship between ARPA and places like PARC and Stanford Research Institute, revolutionized the concept of augmented self, and what computers would mean for future generations.

In Alan Kay words_“One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalyzed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers._6_ _

It is within this context that NLS was built, and Engelbart’s augmentation ideas flourished.

For all his rich work in the field, Engelbart is mostly known to have invented the mouse, but his infamous 1968 presentation, commonly known as the Mother of All Demos’ included a lot of the tools we take for granted today – such as video conferencing and Google Docs style editing, and some we have yet to invent–such as the ability to collaborate with two cursors in real-time.

But it is not the specific tools that Engelbart created which make him, and the NLS an interesting focal point. It is his well-documented thinking, and the universality of the concepts outlined within. The value of language, metaphors, feeling cognitively comfortable and creative within an intellectual environment are all of the same goals the field of design is pursuing today.

It is hard to overstress the vision Engelabrt had for the field, citing Bret Victor’s obituary, that a misguided focus on the fact that Engelbart supposedly only invented the mouse is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil.” 7_

An analysis of this work can provide insights into the design methods and ideas in those days, in particular its differentiated approach from cybernetic thinking and artificial intelligence.


NLS stands for the oN-Line System, which was thought of as a computer framework, a network and the computer itself. NLS was innovative in terms of its software ideas and concepts, as we would analyze below, and also its hardware. Input devices, user interface, and physicality were made for personal use, and learning.


Bill English with several ergonomic setups for NLS; late 1960s

The mouse was made out of wood, and had two rotating wheels. The user could point and click using one button at the top right corner, and despite its crude details it was agronomic in its curved edges.

Replica made by the same shop at SRI which made the original, Computer Science History Museum 8

In many ways, the software vision, and usability models Engelbart proposed were what managed to sell this vision to a government-funded initiative, run by a psychologist.

This opening statement from Engelbart’s proposal contains a number of key ideas:

By augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.” 9_

The use of the word complex insinuates an understanding of a multilayered, not easily governed set of circumstances. Complex systems are ones in which interconnectedness overrules design. For example as it is the case with the economy or weather systems. Conversely, any social system – which involves people and different motivations–is complex. Engelbart had an intuition for those concepts and considered them deeply in this work.

The use of the Situation conditions a context. In other words, complex problems are ahead, and they are situational to a particular environment. We should remind ourselves that this is happening at a time when interdisciplinary scientists are brought into telecommunication laboratories, trying to solve the problem of running a cable under the ocean between the UK and US – as was the case with Claude Shannon–a prolific mathematician and a juggler, among other things– at AT&T’s Bell Labs.

When one approaches such a complex problem situation, she might do so in order to _gain comprehension and derive a solution. These are discrete cognitive processes. Gaining comprehension is a different ritual than practicing a known profession. It is a novel situation, where preexisting knowledge is asked to be repeatedly reapplied in new ways. More akin to the stitching on the boot of Neil Armstrong 10 than sending another email. Armstrong’s suit, model A7L, had to protect him in space from a change of over 500 degrees ( 240F to minus 280), dangerous radiation and an otherworldly range of unknown unknowns. The design and construction of the suite was fulfilled, successfully, by the International Latex Corporation in Dover, Delaware. Needless to say, this is a project where all knowledge was novel, and was never put to this use before.

Beyond a well-funded community and leadership that was open to developmental ideas, designers and engineers were reading books like Act of Creation by Koestler, where the Hungarian English author was analyzing and modeling creative moments, such as jokes, scientific discoveries, and art.

The act of bisociation [^ 11]

Koestler defines such moments as bisciation, in his analysis of creativity produced by the jester, artist, and scientist. Modeled in the transportation between matrices above is the moment where creative thinking happens between known, but previously unconnected domains. It was Koestler’s argument that such crossing happens using linguistic operators, puns and metaphors.

This is the kind of literature which fed into the work of Engelbart and his contemporary and the reason why they took a systematic view, focusing on enabling agency rather than fitting market needs with products, as is the case today through market segmentation, and social media analysis there was a real sense for the need to allow people to learn how to use technology, in order to solve the bigger problem of the time. This is not unconnected from the fact that a lot of this work was government-funded and as such was much more ambitious.

Engelbart is intentional in setting ethnographic standards for this thinking of augmentation.

His processing is of two kinds: that which he is generally conscious of (recognizing patterns, remembering, visualizing, abstracting, deducing, inducing, etc.), and that involving the unconscious processing and mediating of received and self–generated information, and the unconscious mediating of conscious processing itself”

He owns the subconsciousness, and implicit nature of creativity and its signal, in what we can guess is a node to Carl J Jung, and his ideas of synchronicity, and the collective unconscious.

Engelbart is systematic in his analysis of the processes of augmentation, and is basing his framework on four classes which he calls the Augmentation Means:

Engelbart’s Principles Explained
1 Artifacts — physical objects designed to provide for human comfort for the manipulation of things or materials and for the manipulation of symbols Hardware, tools and artifacts which manipulate the physical environment. Helping with strenuous, or dangerous activities.
2 Language — the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into the concepts that his mind uses to model that world and the symbols that he attaches to those concepts The mental models we write and call for when we navigate the world around us, including the artifacts that come into our lives.
3 Methodology — the methods procedures strategies with which an individual organizes his problem-solving activity The processes, patterns, and protocols we put in place — both informally or otherwise – to create an implicit or formal order.
4 Training — the conditioning needed by the human being to bring his skills in using means and to the point where they are operationally effective Individual’s ability to engage with and learn new principles. This could be considered controversial today, as design for frictionless usability, and intuitiveness.

We can imagine that the scale of problems, the comparability limited – and not yet networked–personal computers, together with the innovation culture and ARPA leadership at the time made technology as much about linguistics and psychology as it was about soldering and input devices. There was a real sense of designing conditions for creativity, rather than building tools for creative thinkers.

When these four Augmentation Means work in harmony they will deliver what Engelbart designs as a trained human being together with his artifacts language and methodology.’

In other words a coherent system of an individual able to cognitively navigate and physically manipulate her surroundings, and socially operate within the order and processes, either implicit or made explicit.


Engelbart and his contemporaries were particularly prudent with language. There was a real sense of scarcity in the language and metaphors available to describe the tools and artifacts the NLS was to offer.

Engelbart understood the distance between making something available to the world through invention or discovery, and its eventual adaptation. He addresses the planning and learning phase between the augmenting self and the right system.

The human mind neither learns nor acts by large leaps but by steps organized or structured so that each one depends upon previous steps” 11_

His methodology is to bridge the future with the present through the breakdown of the problem into smaller ones. Each problem, and its solution can travel and down this scale.

This is a recursive process, in which processes are questioned and answered, new skills are acquired and the system–of human, artifact and environment–is learning.

Although every subprocess is process in its own right in that it consists of further sub-processes there seems to be no point here in looking for the ultimate bottom of the process hierarchical structure. There seems to be no way of telling whether or not the apparent bottoms processes that cannot be further subdivided exist in the physical world or in the limitations of human understanding” 12

In this benign sentence Engelbart shows his human–first bias. These were the days of deterministic cybernetics. Norbert Wiener, an American philosopher and mathematician at MIT had just popularized the idea of cybernetics, as a logic that is able to design any task through perpetual connectedness and feedback loops. That very same logic was energizing efforts to build thinking machines, literally in labs 13 , and aesthetically in popular culture 14.

Engelbart is showing humility as a designer, and accepts the open–endedness of his work. There is no apparent bottoms to this augmentation well’. We accept that artifacts exist in a context, and in–between people. The ways in which people think and communicate are unknown to designers and as such need to be learnt and negotiated with. This is as true today as it was in Engelbart’s days.



  2. Advanced Research Projects Agency, later renamed DARPA↩︎



  5. IBID↩︎


  7. A few words on Doug Engelbart, Bret Victor,↩︎

  8. Net@50: Did Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos” Launch the Connected World?↩︎

  9. (AUGMENT,3906,).” Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework - 1962 (AUGMENT,3906,) - Doug Engelbart Institute. Accessed November 30, 2019. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework - 1962 (AUGMENT,3906,).↩︎

  10. International Latex Corporation in Dover↩︎

  11. (AUGMENT,3906,).” Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework - 1962 (AUGMENT,3906,) - Doug Engelbart Institute. Accessed November 30, 2019.↩︎

  12. IBID↩︎

  13. Marvin Minsky, Tentacle Arm, 1968 ↩︎

  14. Eames Office, IBM at the Fair, 1964 ↩︎

May 21, 2021