The College Papers: Impressions on “History of Computers & User Interface Images & Symbols”

For my second assignment in Human-Computer Interaction, I was tasked with watching computer scientist Alan Kay’s 1987 presentation “History of Computers & User Interface Images & Symbols” and reacting to it. Warning: Nerdy computer stuff ahead.


School: University of Southern Mississippi

Course: ITC 361 Human-Computer Interaction

Instructor: Professor Gudla

Date: February 5, 2021

Score: 100

Assignment 2

While watching the video of Alan Kay’s 1987 lecture “History of Computers & User Interface Images & Symbols,” I was absolutely stunned at the hardware and software capabilities of early computing technology of the 1960s and ’70s.

The fact that most of the first biomedical “PCs” from the 1960s were still in use over twenty years later was astounding. Despite the machines’ bulkiness, their hardware and software were clearly stable enough to sustain long-term utilization.

Ivan Sutherland’s 1962 Sketch Pad was perhaps even more incredible. The ability to so easily render and manipulate design sketches in digital form seems decades ahead of its time, and the program itself seemed, in many ways, more intuitive than many of the programs we use today.

But for me, perhaps the pièce de résistance of the lecture was the 1968 footage of Douglas Engelbart’s massive computing demonstration. Engelbart’s mouse-plus-five-pad keyboard rig, designed for easy, bi-dexterity editing and command operation and centered by a full keyboard for typing, is a striking design that, again, seems a more efficient setup than most of us run today.

Even more fantastic was Engelbart’s incorporation of real-time collaborative elements, that allowed not only written exchanges between station displays but audio and video feeds as well, decades before such features were readily used in work environments. As Kay observed, the system that Engelbart envisioned and almost completely realized in these demonstrations, was continuing to stump the industry nearly two decades later. 

Two more philosophical elements in Kay’s lecture also stood out to me. First, in conducting a post-mortem on his failed 1967 Flex Machine design, Kay realized that instead of thinking of older computers as “trains” and his efforts to develop a personal computer as “building a car,” he needed to start thinking of computers as media, something which even a child could use. This epiphany changed Kay’s entire thought process and greatly aided his research and development models moving forward.

The second item that the piqued my interest was a quote by Marshall McLuhan: “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Meaning, experts are often so immersed in their field, that they lose objectivity and can’t see opportunities, solutions, or problems. Having been both the oblivious expert, lost in the work, and the objective outsider who could see the things that the experts missed, the quote resonated with me on multiple levels.

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