Home   Learning Computing History

Human-Computer Interaction








A Brief History of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

 Human-Computer Interaction concerns the design, implementation and evaluation of interactive computing systems for human use.  It is a multidisciplinary science, touches computer, psychology, sociology and anthropology, industrial design, ergonomics and linguistics; it involves input and output devices, dialogue techniques, dialoged genre, computer graphics and dialogue architecture.

 For computer science, the focus is on the interaction between humans and the computational machines. Technologies of input and output devices strongly influence the HCI. Interface design is always the major part and the key to success or failure.

 HCI goal is to produce usable, safe, and functional systems. HCI, such as direct manipulation of graphical objects, mouse pointing, windows have changed computing fundamentally.

The history of HCI-- Key people, events and innovations:

 Digital computer technology not became available until 1940’s, it was difficult to use, and unpredictable, also too expensive for individual.

1943 John Mauchly and Presper Eckert -- ENIAC, the world’s first all electronic numerical integrator and computer

1945 Vanevar Bush – Memex, a memory expander, conceiving Hypertext and the World Wide Web, envisioned as microfilm but computer.

  • A device which ccould store all personal records, articles or communications

  • Annotating text was possible with margin notes and comments

  • Items retrieved by indexing, keyword and cross references

  • Could make a trail of links through material and save it.

1960 J.R. Licklider – postulated “Man-Computer Symbiosis“, which revolutionized human and machines interaction and information handling, the goals and visions are:

  • Time sharing
  • Electronic I/O
  • Interactive real-time system
  • Large scale information storage and retrieval
  • Combined speech recongition, character recongnition, light-pen editing
  • Natual language understanding, sppech recongnition and heuristic programming

1962  Douglas Engelbart – Word processor, which features automatic word wrap, search, replace, macros, scrolling, move, copy and delete.

1963 Ivan Sutherland – Sketchpad, a graphic system which had a sophisticated drawing package and introduced many ideas in today’s interfaces.

  • Hierarchial structures
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Used light pen
  • Icons
  • Grabbing objects, copy and moving them, changing size and using constrains
  • World coordinaties and recursive operations

1965 Ted Nelson – coined term of “hypertext”

1966-1967 William Newman – Reaction handler, the first widget which provided direct manipulation of graphics, and introduced light handles

1968 Douglas Engelbart – Augment/NLS, an on line system, a hypermedia document system, featured tiled windows, mouse, chord keyboard and command line interface.  He provoded a conceptual framework for Augmenting Human Intellect, including:

  • Document processing

  • Input Output innovations

  • Shard work

  • User testing and training

* 1970, Engelbart patented the mouse

1968 MIT Lincoln Labs—AMBGIT, an iconic representation, dynamic menus and used pointing device

1969 Alan Kay – FLEX, an early object orientated language, “Dynabook“ a vision and cardboard prototype of a notebook computer.

1969 – 1980 Nicholas Negroponte – MIT machine architecture had many innovative inventions including:

  • Wall – sized displays
  • Use of Video disks
  • AI interfaces or agents
  • Speech recognition or production
  • Multimedia with hypertext


Start from 70’s IBM text and command based personal computer become available, provided interactive computing power and Man-Machine interface.

1973 Xerox PARC – Alto, the first personal workstation, base on raster dispaly.

  • Local processor, bitmap Black and white display
  • Graphic display with 808x606  “pixels”
  • Precursor to modern GUI
    • Windows controlled by the cursor
    • Commercial  mouse
    • Pop-ups for control tasks
  •  Laser printer
  •  Ethernet

1974 Ted Nelson -- “Computer Lib/Dream Machines“, described what comuters can do for people instead of business

1974 Charls Simonyi and Butler Lampson – Bravo, document editing system for the Alto, Larry Tessler – BravoX,  WYSIWIG text-editor

1975 David Canfield – Pygmalion, A Computer Program to model and stimulate creative thought, which coined the term “ icons”

1975 Ed Roberts/MITS -- ALTAIR 8800, an electronics article that showed people how to build a computer for under $400

1977 Alan Key – Dynabook, a handheld computer helper which direct manipulates interfaces. Ideas:

  • Computer should function like a living organism
  • Use of graphic rather than text
  • Personal computing
  • Desktop interface


From the middle 1980’s, Human-computer interaction start to fly and show its real power.  Two most influential commercial graphical user interface systems, STAR and LISA, came out during this perioud.

1981 Xerox – Star, the first commercial PC designed for “business professionals“ as an office automation system which had overlapping windows, the revolutionary aspects are:

  • High quality interface, desktop metaphor, pointing, easy to learn GUI
  • Direct manipulation
  • First systm based on usability:
    • Bitmapped screen, Windows could overlap
    • Icons and mouse used
    • Progressive disclosure
  • Forever changed the notion of how interactive systems should be designed

1981 IBM – PC, assembed by stadard components, low cost, command interface and MS-DOS OS.

1982 Ben Shneiderman --  describes graphically-based interaction, visibility of objects, incremental action and rapid feedback, which coined the term “direct manipulation”.

1983 Apple – Lisa, text based system, redesign as graphical system similar to Xerox Star but more personal than office tool. commercial was a failture because of expensive.  Lisa’s interface features:

  • Desktop metaphor
  • Mouse and Windows
  • Multi-tasking

1984 Apple/Steve Jobs – Macintosh, the first commercial graphics destop microcomputer based on Alto and Star, old ideas but well done.  With aggressive princing, it was successful commercially.

  • High quality graphics and laser printer
  • Good interface guidelines, pulldown menus, icons & toolbars, drag-and-drop
  • Well written application: MacWrite and MacDraw and third party applications: pgemaker, word, Excel
  • Partially open architecture and powerful developer’s toolkit

1987 Microsoft – Windows, a Mac imitation with some improvements: collaborative, iterative and multi-disciplinary.


Through several generations of evolution, HCI result cheaper and better computer systems. In most case, the user interface constitutes the major bulk of the systems, and it is requires much more than just a software engineering skills. The challenges are still on how to keep abreast of changes in technology and have a good HCL as well.

Last modified: 2004 December 5