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  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

The birth of HCI

HCI is a multidisciplinary field of study focusing on the interaction between humans and computers. While initially concerned with computers, HCI has since expanded to cover almost all forms of information technology. This study has its roots both in the humanities (Communication, sociology, visual arts, cognitive psychology) and in computer science (Operating systems, programming languages, computer graphics). From this study, Interaction Design was born.

How did the field of human-computer interaction get started? One good place to begin our story is in July of 1945, when Vannevar Bush wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, later reprinted in Life, called “As We May Think”. Today, technology has mostly augmented people’s physical abilities; Bush outlined a vision for information technologies that augmented people’s intellectual abilities.

Bush was vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT in the 1930’s, where, incidentally, he was Fred Terman’s advisor. Terman went on to become dean of engineering at Stanford and in the eyes of many the father of Silicon Valley.


In 1939, Vannevar Bush moved to Washington. He’s a leading scientific policy maker He directs a lot of the government funding, and indeed creates and is instrumental in setting up large-scale university research. This administrative effort eventually leads to the creation of the National Science Foundation and ARPA, institutionalizing government-funded scientific research. The goal of this article, written in the final months of World War II, is to ask “What can government-funded scientists do to create a better world in peace time?” and his vision was a strongly human-centered one. Bush wrote of a future interactive desk; he calls the system “memex.” The idea is that all of the world’s information would be available on the knowledge worker’s desktop. Key to the memex idea was effective user interfaces for information storage and retrieval.

Remember, this is 1945, so there aren’t yet practical digital computers — the first room-scale digital computers were just being built — and the idea was to use microfiche — high density film — to store everything! Even more impressive, Bush’s memex vision invents hypertext: he has this idea that people could author trails through this information store, save them for later use, and share them with others. But you’re not always at your desk, right? You want technology to come with you. And knowledge workers need to produce content as well as consume it. And the world isn’t just textual; it’s also visual. So Bush imagined that, in the future, you’d wear a camera, right in the center of your head, like a third eye, and use it to capture stuff. And he worked out a design that made it as easy as possible to take pictures, so there are no dials or settings to fiddle with. As with the memex desk, the details turned out differently; but the core vision was right on target. Today, for example, there are more than a billion camera phones that people carry with them.

The first compiler

The programmable digital computers that soon follow, like the ENIACS, were a huge technological lead-forward. The idea of providing a more effective interface to computers has a long and storied history, beginning with Grace Hopper’s invention in the early 1950’s of the first compiler. What’s inspirational for me is that she conceptualized how improved tools could provide a much wider audience with access to computation. In the intervening years, good programming environments for the desktop and Web enabled legions of developers to create the content that helped put a PC on every desk.

Direct manipulation

It’s a long path from Grace Hopper’s visionary work on the compiler to the graphical user interface. There are three key highlights I’d like to share with you along the way: The seeds of direct manipulation were sown at MIT at Lincoln Labs by Ivan Sutherland. The key innovation of the graphical user interface is that the user’s input is performed directly on top of the system’s output. This input-on-output directness makes the interface much easier to understand and much more intuitive. This input-on-output directness makes the system much easier to understand and feel more intuitive. In the case of Sutherland’s Sketchpad, the input was a light pen and the output was an oscilloscope.

Mouse and hypertext were born

The next major stop on our journey is the creation of the mouse and hypertext; these are key foundations for the Web. In 1945, Doug Engelbart was a navy radar technician. Engelbart spent his monotonous years in the Philippines. In the library, he found a copy of the magazine Life; It reprinted Bush’s Atlantic Monthly article. As John Markov writes, the idea of a device that could extend the power of the human mind left Engelbart awestruck. He had a vision. It took a long time, but eventually he got some funding and set to work and what Doug Engelbart came up with, he showed to the world in his famous 1968 demo. Engelbart’s mouse worked with two orthogonal wheels. Each was a potentiometer, a variable resistor, like stereos commonly have for a volume knob. So you get about 300° of a turn and that’s it. Its usable parameter provided about 5 inches of motion in each direction.


After the 1968 demo, Doug takes a show on the road. He travels the country with a 16-millimetre Bell & Howell projector. Ivan Sutherland had recently joined the faculty at the University of Utah. Doug comes to visit and shows the demo, and in the audience is Ivan’s PhD student Alan Kay. Alan has been dreaming of a personal computer. He sees Engelbart’s video and his eyes bugged out — they have the same dream. After his PhD, Alan moved to the Stanford AI Lab, where John McCarthy’s group has an early time-sharing system, maybe the place in the world where every person had their own terminal. From there, he moves to Xerox PARC, where he fleshes out his vision of a Dynabook. This isn’t a functioning computer at all; it’s made out of carboard; it’s a prototype designed to communicate a vision. With this vision in hand, Alan Kay and his colleagues at Xerox PARC start building the foundation of the first real graphical user interface. It took them a decade to get it all together, to get it ready to ship. Xerox released the STAR computing system in 1981. The STAR featured a bitmapped display, a window-based graphical user interface, icons, folders, mice, ethernet network, file servers, print servers, and email.

When the STAR shipped, this was almost four decades after Vannevar Bush’s vision, three decades after Grace Hopper’s compiler, two decades after Doug Engelbart’s first functioning system, and a decade after Alan Kay set off to work building this computer, inspired by the Dynabook ideas. This is an example of what Bill Buxton calls “the ‘Long Nose’ of Innovation”, that the early ideas behind a new technology paradigm are often seeded decades before the major commercial adoption.


Until the late 1970s, the only humans who interacted with computers were information technology professionals and dedicated hobbyists. This changed disruptively with the emergence of personal computing in the later 1970s. Personal computing, including both personal software (productivity applications, such as text editors and spreadsheets, and interactive computer games) and personal computer platforms (operating systems, programming languages, and hardware), made everyone in the world a potential computer user. HCI emerged in the early 1980s, and since then has expanded rapidly and steadily for three decades incorporating multiple disciplines, such as computer science, cognitive science, and human-factors engineering. HCI soon became the subject of intense academic investigation. Initially, HCI researchers focused on improving the usability of desktop computers (i.e., practitioners concentrated on how easy computers are to learn and use). However, with the rise of technologies such as the Internet and the smartphone, computer use would increasingly move away from the desktop to embrace the mobile world.

Also, HCI has steadily encompassed more fields including games, learning and education, commerce, health, and medical applications, emergency planning and response, and systems to support collaboration and community. It expanded from early graphical user interfaces to include myriad interaction techniques and devices, multi-modal interactions, tool support for model-based user interface specification, and a host of emerging ubiquitous, handheld, and context-aware interactions.


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