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Engelbarts Violin

By Stanislav,

Computing pioneer Alan Kay tells us that a computer is an instrument whose
music is ideas. This seems like a beautiful metaphor, until you realize that we have
somehow ended up in a world where the profession of musician is nearly unknown. To
continue with this analogy, lets imagine that you were a child who loves music. A child
with Mozarts inclinations, if not necessarily the full magnitude of his gifts. Your parents
buy you a toy piano, and you live out what are, unbeknownst to you, the brightest days
of your life. The years go by, adulthood comes, and you become no, not a composer:
an organ grinder. (Or, if you like, a disk jockey.) Or lets say that you were an
extraordinary lucky and dedicated child of music. You manage to enroll in a
conservatory. Or perhaps you dont, but instead you spend your free time away from
your organ-grinding day job as an amateur composer. And yet, in either case, you are
still stuck playing out your original works on a hacked barrel organ. Why? It is because,
in this imaginary nightmare world, the very idea of a musical instrument has faded
away. If someone wishes to hear music, he turns a crank or listens to the results of
someone else doing so. Or perhaps there are Victrolas in this world and professional
composers, the few which still exist, are expected to compose music by hand-etching
grooves on a phonograph record, as if they were machinists working a peculiar sort of

Sadly, the above scenario is more truth than fiction for computer enthusiasts. There
is a particularly cruel discrepancy between what a creative child imagines the trade of a
programmer to be like and what it actually is. When you are a teenager, alone with a
(programmable) computer, the universe is alive with infinite possibilities. You are a god.
Master of all you survey. Then you go to school, major in Computer Science, graduate
and off to the salt mines with you, where you will stitch silk purses out of sows ears in
some braindead language, building on the braindead systems created by your
predecessors, for the rest of your working life. There will be little room for serious, deep
creativity. You will be constrained by the will of your master (whether the proverbial
pointy-haired boss, or lemming-hordes of fickle startup customers) and by the
limitations of the many poorly-designed systems you will use once you no longer have
an unconstrained choice of task and medium. To my knowledge, no child grows up
playing doctor and still believes as a teenager (or even as a college student) that an
actual medical practice resembles that activity. Likewise, no one has a fully functional
toy legal system to play with as a child, and as a result goes into law. On the other
hand, adult programming, seen from afar, is enough like child-programming to set the
computer-enthusiast child up for just this kind of exceptionally cruel bait-and-switch.
Lets say that you were one of the lucky ones those who found a way to pay their bills
via something resembling creative programming. Or, far more likely, you inhabit the salt
mines by day, while letting your mind run free in your spare time. Yet in both cases,
you are doomed to work with the instruments of the salt mine! Fortunately, in software
there is room for some liberating deviancy since bits are easy to rearrange and
copy. But as for hardware, you come home to the very same instrument of
torture and mutilation you left behind in the cube farm: the typewriter keyboard. (And,
naturally, the C machine. But the latter is an overworked subject on this blog, and
today we speak of other things.)
Virtually every profession has a concept of professional equipment. It tends to be
costlier, sturdier, more solid, more rewarding of dedicated training, more difficult to
obtain, than equipment intended for amateurs. And yet, among the tools of a modern
programmers trade, we find scarcely anything which fits into this category. Perhaps
you are now sitting in front of your lovingly-maintained heirloom IBM Model M
keyboard, but it is still a typewriter keyboard and resembles, in many fundamental
ways, the cheapest piece of disposable trashware found at your local electronics store.
Conventional wisdom in the technology community holds that the personal computer
revolution gave everyone access to professional-grade computing equipment. I hold the
opposite view: that the very notion of professional equipment has been forgotten in our
field (and to my knowledge, in our field alone.)
If the above is a delusion, I am proud to share this delusion with several persons whose
brilliant minds I think of as my guiding lights. Among them was Erik Naggum:

Erik Naggum, comp.lang.lisp. Feb. 16, 1997. (Emphasis mine.)
And so, here we are, deskilled craftsmen, flippers of bits. Some of us fungible today,
some tomorrow. Still performing the same old menial tasks by mouse instead of by
lever the so-called Computer Revolution notwithstanding. Still turning steam engine
valves by hand. Still writing the same, dreary boilerplate code, again and again. On
QWERTY keyboards
You have probably heard of Douglas Engelbart: one of the very, very few genuinely great
minds of the computing field. He is best known as the inventor of the computer mouse
but in fact, this man created just about all of the conceptual underpinnings of what
we now think of as the standard human-computer interface. Arguably, he is single-
handedly responsible for the very notion of interactive, visual computing. Engelbart
presented his ideas to the public in one long demo session on December 9, 1968. This
demo is known today, quite appropriately, as The Mother of All Demos.
If you watch the Mother of All Demos which you should you will notice the piano-
like device sitting to the left of the conventional keyboard: v=JfIgzSoTMOs

A closer look:

In use:

The above gadget is known as a chorded keyboard, or chorder. In Engelbarts computing
environment, it supplemented, rather than replaced, the traditional typewriter
keyboard. Most of Engelbarts contemporaries saw the chorder as a somewhat naive
engineering mistake. Among them was Alan Kay:

Thierry Bardini, Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of
Personal Computing. (p. 215.) (Emphasis mine.)
As far as I can tell, this is still the mainstream view today:
Today, human-computer interaction is focused on ease-of-use and learnability. Ideally,
people should be immediately effective with a computer the first time they use it. The
emphasis is on usability without the necessity of training. The exact opposite of
Engelbarts approach. Engelbarts dilemma is that his philosophy produced some of the
best computer technologies of our age (e.g. mouse, windows, word processing, etc.), but
the full realization of his vision is completely counter to way interaction designers think
of computers systems today. In fact, Engelbarts belief in efficiency over ease-of-use
places him in the fringe of computer interaction design today. Thats sad considering
hes done more for interaction design than any else I can think of.
Richard Monson-Haefel, Engelbarts Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use.
And yet, there were those who believed that there is something to be gained by breaking
with the typewriter tradition. Why should the mechanical constraints of nineteenth-
century clockwork limit todays user interfaces? Among the few brave souls who put
their money where their mouth is was Cy Endfield American (later, British)
screenwriter, film director, theatre director, author, magician and inventor. Endfield, a
truepolymath, created the Microwriter a pocket word processor equipped with six keys,
intended to be operated with one hand:

At first glance, this device resembles the familiar stenotype. However, the latter was
never meant to be a general-purpose text entry system. Stenotypes use syllable-based
encodings, narrowly specialized for transcribing human speech. Endfields Microwriter
was something rather different: a genuinely-original, alphabet-based, general-purpose
text entry system.
The Microwriters use of one rather than both hands seems like a shortcoming, until
you realize that the device was designed for maximal portability at the very dawn of
the age of personal computing! It was really intended to replace a traditional paper
clipboard, rather than a typewriter:


Endfields chording system was of a very elegant design, which balanced ergonomics with
mnemonic simplicity:

Volume One of the Microwriter User Guide contains a miniature crash-course in the use
of Endfields writing system. This document is perhaps the cleanest and most
imaginative piece of technical writing that I have ever come across:

There have been other commercial and academic attempts at chorded keyboards, but
this one happens to be the earliest (that I am aware of) which reached actual production
and was placed on the market (however briefly.) It is also the only one which I have
had the good fortune to actually hold in my hands:
This rather unimpressive hello world was achieved after around fifteen minutes of
practice. The speed is a fraction of my QWERTY typing speed, but is a near-match for
my handwriting on a good day. What would it have been like if I had been put in front
of an Endfield keyboard as a small child, instead of a typewriter monstrosity?
And what if you could expect to find (or carry) a decent, non-wrist-destroying chorded
typing device everywhere you go, at work sites, schools, etc.? Clearly, that is not the
kind of world we live in: century-oldtechnological standards die hard. But why is there
so little interest among genuinely-professional computer users in an input device which
maximizes speed and slows the destruction of the hands with which you work? And I
marvel at the absurdity of the miniature QWERTY keypads found on mobile
phones! Surely that is where the supremacy of the chorder would be indisputable.
Fascinating as the chorded keyboard is, its confinement to the ghetto of crackpot
technology is but a symptom of the underlying disease: the total victory of the
technological business model which caters primarily to the unskilled.
Naggum clearly saw the absence of professional computing equipment for what it is: a
result of the erosion of the very concept of the craftsman, the skilled, non-
fungible professional:
something important happens when a previously privileged position in society suddenly
sees incredibly demand that needs to be filled, using enormous quantities of manpower.
that happened to programming computers about a decade ago, or maybe two. first, the
people will no longer be super dedicated people, and they wont be as skilled or even as
smart what was once dedication is replaced by greed and sometimes sheer need as
the motivation to enter the field. second, an unskilled labor force will want job security
more than intellectual challenges (to some the very antithesis of job security). third,
managing an unskilled labor force means easy access to people who are skilled in
whatever is needed right now, not an investment in people which leads to the
conclusion that a programmer is only as valuable as his ability to get another job fast.
fourth, when mass markets develop, pluralism suffers the most there is no longer a
concept of healthy participants: people become concerned with the individual winner,
and instead of people being good at whatever they are doing and proud of that, they will
want to flock around the winner to share some of the glory.
Erik Naggum, comp.lang.lisp. Jul. 15, 1999.
In the mind of todays technological entrepreneur, the ideal user (and employee) is semi-
skilled or unskilled entirely. The ideal user interface for such a person never rewards
learning or experience when doing so would come at the cost of immediate accessibility
to the neophyte. This design philosophy is a mistake a catastrophic, civilization-level
mistake. There is a place in the world for the violin as well as the kazoo. Modern
computer engineering is kazoo-only, and keyboards are only the most banal example of
this fact. Far more serious though less obvious problems of this kind tie our hands
and wastefully burn our brain cycles.
Professional equipment, whose mastery requires dedication and mental flexibility, may
not be appropriate for casual users. But surely it is appropriate in fact, necessary for
professionals? Just why is this idea confined to crackpots shouting in the wilderness? I
hope to learn a definitive answer to this conundrum some day.