History of Human Computer Interaction

To make students aware of the intellectual and historical foundations of human computer interaction, a brief history of the early major breakthroughs in HCI are covered. Presentations are followed by historical videos, which the students greatly enjoy. Some are flabbergasted that many so-called "modern" ideas were implemented before they were born!

Overheads (Powerpoint)

Topics Covered

  • A glimpse at historical computers
  • Intellectual Foundations
    • Vannevar Bush and Memex
    • J.C.R. Licklider and man-computer symbiosis
  • Significant advances, 1960-1980
    • Time sharing
    • Sutherland's Sketchpad
    • Engelbart's NLS
    • Personal Computers: Dynabook, Computer Lib, Alto, Altair
    • Commercial Machines: Xerox Star/Apple Lisa and the Macintosh
    • Innovations from the MIT Media Lab

Required Readings

  1. Baecker, R., Grudin, J., Buxton, W., and Greenberg, S. (1995).
    Readings in Human Computer Interaction: Towards the Year 2000 (2nd Edition), Morgan-Kaufmann, San Francisco, CA . Excerpts:
    • Chapter 1: A Historical and Intellectual Perspective, p.35-47 gives an excellent overview of early advances in HCI.
    • Case B: The Emergence of Graphical User Interfaces, p.49-52, briefly highlights the progression of what are arguably the most important commercial systems to influence modern computing: the Xerox Star, the Apple Lisa, and the Apple Macintosh.
    • The Xerox Star: A Retrospective, p.53-70, details the many important innovations in the Star user interface, as well as providing a history of how other systems influenced (and were influenced by) the Star.

In-Class Activities

This is mostly a lecture-style module. However, almost all lecture materials are brought to life by showing historical videos (see below); students are often amazed at what was done decades before they were born!

I also try to find a real odd-ball device that is not familiar to most students. Examples in the past included an apple peeler and corer (which looks like an implement a torturer would use!) and a co-ax wire stripper. I pass it around for students to try and figure out what it is. We then discuss what visual clues helped them understand its function.

Additional Readings

  1. Card, S. (1996)
    Pioneers and settlers: Methods used in successful user interface design.In M. Rudisill, C. Lewis, P. Polson and T. McKay (eds) Human-Computer Interface Design: Success Stories, Emerging Methods, and Real-World Context, p122-169, Morgan-Kaufmann.
    • Successful systems are reconsidered against a variety of design and evaluation methods as well as real deployment requirements.
  2. Myers, B.
    A brief history of human-computer interaction technology. Interactions, March/April 1998.


  1. Sutherland, I.
    Sketchpad (1983, SGVR 13)
    • Sutherland's Sketchpad influenced graphics and graphical user interfaces.
  2. Engelbart and English
    A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect, (1994, SGVR 106)
    • Engelbart's visionary NLS system contains the essence of many of the ideas in modern interfaces.
  3. Smith and Irby
    Xerox Star User Interface, (1983, SGVR 56)
    • The Xerox Star was, of course, the first commercial product that we would consider "modern".
  4. Kay, Allan
    Doing with Images Makes Symbols, (1987, University Video Communications)
    • Kay, in the first half of his video, walks through the history of interfaces which include the Dynabook vision and the Alto.
  5. MIT
    The Movie Manual, (1983, SVGR 13)
    • The MIT Media Lab has an important place in history in terms of innovation and invention. This video illustrates a rich multimedia manual.
  6. Schmandt, Chris.
    Put That There,(1983, SVGR 13)
    • This video illustrates a multimodal large screen display; exceptional early work.
  7. Apple, Inc.
    Apple 1984, commercial.
    • This clip is famous for the way it sets itself apart from IBM via a 'big brother' theme.

Major sources used to prepare lecture material