straight up

New technology has always been used to make media. George Lucas shot his latest Star Wars epic with digital cameras, though the audience experience was no different than if it had been shot on celluloid. But while not all computer-based media is multimedia, today's multimedia starts with the computer, and takes the greatest advantage of the computer's capability for personal expression.

Digital computers were initially designed as calculating machines. The first fully electronic computer, the ENIAC, was built by the U.S. military during World War II to produce ballistics tables for artillery in battle. Computers then were clumsy, hulking devices – the ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, and measured 50 x 30 feet – that did calculations for scientific research. Only a handful of scientists considered the possibility of personal computing for creative purposes by non-specialists.

The first scientist to think seriously of this potential was Vannevar Bush. In his 1945 article "As We May Think," he outlined "a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library." Before the ENIAC was completed, Bush was already contemplating how information technology could enhance the individual's capability for creative thought. "The human mind… operates by association," Bush observed. The device that he proposed, which he named the Memex, enabled the associative indexing of information, so that the reader's trail of association would be saved inside the machine, available for reference at a later date. This prefigured the notion of the hyperlink. While Bush never actually built the Memex, and while his description of it relied on technology that predated digital information storage, his ideas had a profound influence on the evolution of the personal computer.

In the years immediately after the War, under the shadow of the atomic bomb, the scientific establishment made a concerted effort to apply recent advancements in technology to humanitarian purposes. In this climate, Norbert Wiener completed his groundbreaking theory on cybernetics. While Wiener did not live to see the birth of the personal computer, his book, The Human Use of Human Beings, has become de rigeur for anyone investigating the psychological and socio-cultural implications of human-machine interaction. Wiener understood that the quality of our communication with machines effects the quality of our inner lives. His approach provided the conceptual basis for human-computer interactivity and for our study of the social impact of electronic media.

Bush and Wiener established a foundation on which a number of computer scientists associated with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)--a U.S. government funded program to support defense-related research in the1960s—began to build. Leading ARPA's effort to promote the use of computers in defense was the MIT psychologist and computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider, author of the influential article "Man-Computer Symbiosis." Defying the conventional wisdom that computers would eventually rival human intelligence, rather than enhancing it, Licklider proposed that the computer be developed as a creative collaborator, a tool that could extend human intellectual capability and improve a person's ability to work efficiently.

While at ARPA, Licklider put significant resources towards the pursuit of his vision. Among the scientists he supported was Douglas Engelbart, who since the mid-1950s had been seeking support for the development of a digital information retrieval system inspired by Bush's Memex. APRA funding enabled Engelbart to assemble a team of computer scientists and psychologists at the Stanford Research Institute to create a "tool kit" that would, as he phrased it, "augment human intellect." Dubbed the oNLine System (NLS), its public debut in 1968 at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco was a landmark event in the history of computing. Engelbart unveiled the NLS before a room of 3,000 computer scientists, who sat in rapt attention for nearly two hours while he demonstrated some of his major innovations, including the mouse, windows for text editing, and electronic mail. Engelbart was making it possible, for the first time, to reach virtually through a computer’s interface to manipulate information. Each of his innovations was a key step towards an interface that allowed for intuitive interactivity by a non-specialist. At the end of his presentation, he received a standing ovation.

However, the contributions of the NLS went beyond innovation regarding the computer interface. Engelbart and his colleagues also proposed that creativity could be enhanced by the sharing of ideas and information through computers used as communications devices. The oNLine System had its computers wired into a local network, which enabled them to be used for meaningful collaboration between co-workers. Engelbart understood that the personal computer would not only augment intelligence, but augment communication as well. In 1969 his research in on-line networking came to fruition with the creation of the Internet.

Engelbart's NLS pioneered some of the essential components necessary for the personal computer, but it would be up to a new generation of engineers to advance computing so it could embrace multimedia. As a graduate student in the late 1960s, Alan Kay wrote a highly influential Ph.D. thesis proposing a personal information management device that, in many ways, prefigured the laptop. In 1970, as research in information science was shifting from East Coast universities and military institutions to private digital companies in Silicon Valley, Kay was invited to join the new Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. PARC's mandate was no less than to create "the architecture of information for the future."

At PARC, Alan Kay conceived the idea of the Dynabook – a notebook sized computer that enabled hyperlinking, was fully interactive, and integrated all media. With the Dynabook, digital multimedia came into being. Echoing Licklider, Engelbart and colleagues at PARC, Kay declared the personal computer a medium in its own right,. It was a "meta-medium," as he described it in his 1977 essay "Personal Dynamic Media," capable of being "all other media." While the Dynabook remained a prototype that was never built, the work that came from its development, including the invention of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and subsequent breakthroughs in dynamic computing, was incorporated into the first true multimedia computer, the Xerox Alto.