UW historian Margaret OMara discusses famous 1968 computer mouse demo and the start of Silicon Valley for new podcast by The Conversation

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Margaret O’Mara, University of Washington professor of history, explores the impact of a December 1968 computer presentation that came to be called “the mother of all demos” in an episode of a new podcast series from the news website The Conversation.

O’Mara was interviewed by host Phillip Martin for The Conversation’s new podcast, “Heat and Light,” telling stories of 1968, which the site calls “the year that changed America.” She also wrote an essay for the website to accompany the podcast.

The Conversation is a not-for-profit website that publishes writing by academics on newsworthy topics. It started in Australia in 2011 and began operations in the United States in 2014. The site also publishes in Canada, Europe, Africa and Indonesia. Its new podcast began in September.

O’Mara interviewed on “The Mother of all Demos” in 1968
Listen to the podcast

O’Mara’s interview and essay explore the importance of 1968 to the development of computer technology — and ultimately Silicon Valley itself. The famous “demo” was that of a quiet Stanford researcher named Douglas Engelbart, who, O’Mara writes, “took the stage at San Francisco Civic Auditorium and proceeded to blow everyone’s mind about what computers could do.”

The innovation being presented? A palm-sized wooden box with wheels and a cord — naturally called a “mouse.” The demonstration, O’Mara said, previewed the world of personal and online computing that was to come a few years later.

“It wasn’t just the technology that was revelatory,” O’Mara writes, “it was the notion that a computer could be something a non-specialist individual user could control from their own desk.”

She also notes the irony that the subsequent “government-is-dangerous-and-small-is-beautiful” computing era that resulted would not have happened “without government research funding in the first place.”

O’Mara’s “Heat and Light” interview became available on September 17. Other 1968 topics have included campus activism, television’s first inter-racial kiss and feminist protests of the Miss America Pageant.

O’Mara’s research focuses on the high-tech industry, American politics, and connections between the two. She is the author of “Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley” (Princeton, 2005) and “Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century” (University of Pennsylvania, 2012). Her next book is a history of the late-20th century United States told through the lens of the high-tech revolution.

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For more information, contact O’Mara at http://www.margaretomara.com/. Follow her on Twitter at @margaretomara.

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