Breaking Muse!

Mouse Muse by Lorna Owen

 

Today I’m taking a detour from our art-inspiring rodent to share a bit of exciting news: a book based on this blog will soon be published!

Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art — is due out this November 2014.

The idea began to form several years ago when I caught my first deer mouse in an old farmhouse into which my husband and I had just moved. While I saw mice, with their talent to shoot out from the shadows, simply as critters who made my heart race, the minuscule mammal with huge eyes and ears, sitting in the no-kill trap staring back at me, I admit sparked a re-thinking of the entire species. In that mouse, I instantly thought of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors of mice and I couldn’t help wondering how the mouse has been interpreted in art beyond the pages of children’s illustrated stories.

The white-footed fellow propelled me on this unexpected journey both to learn about the tiny creature and to understand just who were those artists who were compelled to use mice in their work. And in the course of my undertaking I found—and continue to find—that the reasons behind the mouse’s role as muse are as revealing as they are surprising. That the otherwise lowly, misunderstood mouse, nature’s most humble creature, has indeed left an astonishing and gigantic legacy in visual art.

 

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 A few facts:

Title: MOUSE MUSE: The Mouse in Art

Publisher: The Monacelli Press

On-sale: November 11, 2014

Available for pre-order: Amazon; B&N; Powell’s; Chapters Indigo, Canada; Amazon UK; Random House Australia (and many others)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Winslow Homer, 1858, engraving, Eventful History of Three Little Mice“Three blind mice/ see how they run/ they all ran after the farmer’s wife/ who cut off their tails with a carving knife…” A horrifying image dressed in a child’s verse. The English it seems gave the German Brothers Grimm a run for their money. This familiar nursery rhyme was allegedly scribbled in honor of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary I, who also happens to be called Bloody Mary because she had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of Protestants; she, the “farmer’s wife,” who so generously had three noblemen—the eponymous mice—burned at the stake rather than their eyes poked out.

Taken out of context of 16th century England in which they originated, the unseeing mice today are but a trio of unfortunate tiny rodents, without sight and without tails. And the ambiguity of the lyrics leaves us speculating about the sequence of events—whether the mice were running after or running away from their mutilator when she slashed their tails. The celebrated poet Billy Collins, however, turns our attention to an even more pertinent question: why were the mice blind in the first place? The former Poet Laureate guesses at the answers as empathy sneaks up on him, sneaks into the lines of his “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’”:

…If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.


 
Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
 
…the thought of them without eyes

and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

 

or slip around the corner of a baseboard

has the cynic who always lounges within me

up off his couch and at the window

trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.


 
By now I am on to dicing an onion

which might account for the wet stinging

in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s

mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”


 
which happens to be the next cut,

cannot be said to be making matters any better.[1]

But long before the three blind mice softened a cynic’s heart, America’s greatest nineteenth century painter got caught up in the nursery rhyme as well. In his early years as an artist, Winslow Homer earned his keep as a commercial illustrator. In 1858, a Boston publisher hired Homer to contribute seventeen illustrations to a children’s book. Titled Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, it could almost be read as a direct response to the question Collin’s would one day pose. And like Collins, Homer and the tale’s anonymous author treat the mice sympathetically, showing us that their lamentable fate wasn’t because they were naughty but because they were mice simply being mice—in the pantry of the farmer’s wife looking for food.

 

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______________________

[1] Billy Collins, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” (excerpted), Picnic, Lightning, 1998.

Additional sources: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction” in Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1996 edition, Oxford University Press; Garth Stein, “Billy Collins’s ‘I Chop Some Parsley….’,” Shambhala Sun, July 2010, p. 96.

(Image: Winslow Homer, from Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1858, hand colored engraving, publisher: E. O. Libby & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.)

 

 


unSwept Away

Detail of Heraclitus's MosaicBones of fish and fowl and stones of fruit, shells of crustaceans and oysters and a walnut or two, as well as capers and olives—these, the remnants of a very large Mediterranean meal. As for the cleanup it was all the more onerous—at least for the minions if not for the mice—since the guests had cavalierly tossed the leavings on the floor. How barbaric! Yet this was not the aftermath of a feast of a band of hungry Neanderthals some sixty thousand years ago but that of a banquet of the powerful and wealthy and educated in Ancient Rome. Perhaps their actions boiled down to what the philosopher Epictetus had to say back then in the first century, essentially that feeding the stomach should be secondary to feeding the mind.[1] If food had to take a backseat to discourse and Homeric declamations then it only stood to reason that keeping your place at the table neat would have been a triviality considered best ignored. Or perhaps the Roman elite were entitled slobs. In any case, the leftovers strewn across the floors of formal dining rooms inspired mosaic artists; they turned them into a trick-of-the-eye motif, using tiny tiles of colored marble and glass, specially cut and arranged.

Aptly called asàrotos òikos, or “unswept room,” it became a genre of its own. The earliest example, according to Pliny the Elder’s oft-cited mention in his Natural History appeared in the 2nd century BCE—about the time wealthy Greeks took a shine to mosaic ornamentation, which superseded decoratively painted wood in their villas. “[T]he most famous exponent [of the style] was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor, [and] represented refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, making them appear as if they had been left there,” Pliny wrote, identifying the only mosaicist from the cradle of Western civilization known by name.[2]

Three centuries later, the Romans copied the Greeks, filling their residences with mosaic wall and floor decorations. Asàrotos òikos was in demand. They cropped up in posh, private homes in Tunisia and in Pompeii, and in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. And in another villa atop Aventine Hill in Rome—that one signed by Heraclitus and said to be a replica of Sosus’s. Like Sosus, Heraclitus saw to include both a mouse and his shadow as he nibbles on a walnut shell.

 

 

.

 

[1] Epictetus, Enchiridon, 41.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, xxxvi, 184, translated by D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, reprint, 2001.

Additional sources: Niki Holmes Kantzios, “Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics”; A Companion to Greek Art, Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds; Roger Ling, Ancient Mosaics, Princeton University Press, 1998.

(Image: Heraclitus, Unswept Room, detail, Gregoriano Profano Museum, Vatican Museums)

 


Tiny Dancer

Charles Hermann-Léon, published 1891Some one hundred years ago “waltzing” mice were a sought-after pet, a novelty bred solely for their quickstep ability. Despite what this print of mice might charm us into believing, the real-live diminutive creatures danced on all four legs, never on two. Sometimes they spun around an invisible vertical axis or in a figure eight as they twitched their heads about. Sometimes two mice danced together in a synchronized fashion. And sometimes two mice danced like a planet orbited by its moon—while one spun in a wide circle, the other circled the spinner.

Along with their kin fancy mice—varieties of house mice who earned the fancy in their name having been selectively bred and prized for their exceptional coat colors, such as blue and yellow and albino—the waltzing, commonly piebald, mice were domesticated in 18th century Japan. Scientists speculated that they resulted from a natural mutation that occurred centuries earlier in a mouse who was once indigenous to the plateaus and plains of Central Asia—a tiny dancer was mentioned as early as 80 B.C. in the annals of the Han Dynasty. China by way of Japan, the now-called Japanese waltzers arrived in Europe with the help of European traders throughout the nineteenth century, and by the late 1890s these nimble-footed individuals began to appear in the United States.[1]

From 1903 to 1907, Robert Yerkes, a behavioral psychologist and a professor at Harvard University observed from two to one hundred “graceful and dexterous” little dancers and published the results in an aptly titled book The Dancing Mouse.[2] In addition to his probe into their development and their physiology, looking for deviations from ordinary mouse species, he broke down their dance steps, whirling to the left or whirling to the right or whirling back and forth to the left and right. The left whirlers, who were mainly female, outnumbered the right whirlers, who were mainly male. Both sexes, however, whirled more and more as day turned to dusk.

The Japanese waltzing mice, as it turned out, were not dancing because they heard songs in their heads. In fact when they were born they hardly heard anything at all, and by the time the mice were one-week old the majority of the dancers were completely deaf. Most scientists concurred that both the deafness and the unusual behavior were probably due to a hereditary structural abnormality of the inner ear. While they disagreed as to the precise location—the ear canals or the cochleae or the ligaments of the cochlear ducts—and pointed fingers at one another, claiming carelessness in their methods, they agreed that the mice’s twirling was nothing but their lifelong quest to stay upright.[3] Alas.

The tiny waltzers no longer exist. Perhaps because almost the second after the mice had reached our shores, scientists nabbed them and crossbred them, over and over, with a number of other strains. One thing that can be said, any dancing mice are better left to the imagination of artists.

This print is by the 19th century French artist Charles Hermann-Léon, highly esteemed for his paintings of animals. Published in 1891 its caption reads: Quand les chats n’y sont pas…,[4] taken from the well-known French proverb, “When the cats aren’t there…” (or the English version “When the cat’s away…”) We all know what comes next: The mice will dance!

 

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[1] William H. Gates, “The Japanese Waltzing Mouse, Its Origin and Genetics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 11, 1925.

[2]Robert M. Yerkes, The Dancing Mouse: A Study in Animal Behavior, 1907.

[3] In the 1930s, a leading mammalogist Lee Dice of the University of Michigan discovered the same dancing behavior and ear defects in four strains of deer mice, Lee R. Dice, “Inheritance of Waltzing and of Epilepsy in Mice of the Genus Peromyscus,Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1935)

[4]The source of the print is unknown.

(Image: Quand les chats n’y sont pas…” by Charles Hermann-Léon, photogravure print, 6 ¼ x 4 7/8 in., published 1891.)

 


Hadaka no tsukiai

1 Utagawa Kunisada III, Kōshi Bath, 1882This communal bathhouse just happens to be filled with mice—but they are patrons not pests, mind you.

Like any good citizen of 19th century Tokyo, these anthropomorphic mice, as seen in this whimsical “popular” woodblock print by the artist Utagawa Kunisada III,[1] went to a public bathhouse to keep themselves clean. Although in certain quarters bathhouses often masqueraded as brothels, with indoor plumbing in the home a thing of the future, frequenting the neighborhood sento or onsen was a common activity, one that was social as well as practical, catching up on the gossip as well as removing the dirt. A culture of hadaka no tsukiai, naked communion, they called it. The bathhouse was a place that the whole family could enjoy, fathers and mothers and children all sudsing together—that is until around 1890 when a law was passed that doused the fun, calling for separate sections for men and women.

Reminiscent to vertical landscape scroll paintings, Kōshi Bath is divided into four separate planes, arranged bottom to top, depicting the mice’s progression through the bathhouse from the entrance to the soaking, from earth to the heavens you might say. The woodblock print was published in 1882, during the Meiji era, when Edo became Tokyo, when a more egalitarian Japan opened its doors to foreign influences. Along with forms of western industrialization came the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes to the Japanese printmaking process, which allowed for prints to be produced in brilliant colors—unlike the muted tones of the preceding period. “Vibrant red and purple in particular—the ‘colors of progress’—became emblematic of the Meiji era,” one curator wrote, “vividly expressing the pursuit of ‘enlightenment and civilization,’ the watch-words of the Meiji leaders.”[2]

While Kunisada III was a trained master artist in his own right—having been the apprentice of the apprentice of the apprentice of the master Toyokuni who had founded the celebrated Utagawa school—his print of bathhouse mice wasn’t fine art made for the elite, using the best quality of paper but, according to artist and author Rebecca Salter, most likely created for the amusement of the burgeoning working class, dashed off on thin, sometimes recycled paper and sold inexpensively[3] to the thousands of people who had scurried, like mice, into the cities.

 

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[1] Utagawa Kunisada III also named himself professionally Kunimasa IV and Baido Hosai, and Toyokuni IV—as per the elaborate Eastern tradition.

[2] Donald Jenkins, Curator, “Meiji Woodblock Print Exhibition,” Portland Art Museum, 2002.

[3] Rebecca Salter, Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards, University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

Additional source: Scott Clark, Japan, a View from the Bath, University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

(Image: Utagawa Kunisada III, Kōshi Bath, woodblock print, 1882.)

 


Apologia pro vita sua

George Grosz Mouse sketchbook, 1950-1952Mice as subject matter may have been light-years away from the artist’s early, caustic vision of his native Germany between the wars. Yet in the years, 1950-1951, he drew sixteen rodents in the pages of what he called his “Mäusezeichbuch,” his mice drawing book. Several are pinned in the once ubiquitous snap traps—regrettable blows of reality—that have left art historians guessing. Did the artist discover in the mouse a “discourse on nature and the past?” Or did he, now a naturalized American, revel in the post-WWII political irony of the trap’s trademark name, Victor?[1]

Considered “one of the twentieth century’s greatest satirists,” a Hogarth by way of Goya, George Grosz was shaped by both the obscene death and destruction he witnessed serving in the Kaiser’s war and the corrosive contradictions of the subsequent Weimar Republic. He portrayed lust and violence, at once ribald and revolting, as political power’s helpmates; his caricatures lacerated German society: the Church, the Military and the Bourgeoisie. Obese and porcine. Mere gatherings of empirical evidence. “I spared no one…I considered myself a natural scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography.[2] Yet he recognized that he was but both sides of the same proverbial coin. “I was everybody I depicted: the rich, gorging, champagne-guzzling man favored by fate, as well as the one out there holding out his hand in the pouring rain.”[3] While the streets of Berlin simmered, Grosz’s art soon made his name in America, the land of his boyhood dreams, the land of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans; a hair’s breadth before the Reichstag went up in flames, Grosz accepted an invitation to teach in New York, arriving in 1933.

Sought-after at the Art Students League, however, wasn’t a balm to the realization that his satiric work was now viewed as outdated and depressing, crowded out by abstract expressionism. Like a wind-up toy he shuffled around, looking for his artistic soul. He turned back to the works of the old masters, Pisanello and Dürer, studying the way they painted animals, a duck, a young hare, a couple of squirrels… Later, in his acceptance speech for a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Grosz spoke about “the limitations of satire and desire to be an artist of nature.” The writer Ian Buruma describes Grosz’s talk: “It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter….”[4]

To the mice, nature morte, Grosz applied the unvarnished truth, much as he did in his earlier illustrations. The creatures are meticulously rendered, “life-size”—their fur defined by each hair, their tiny paws rigid, their eyes unseeing.

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[1] See Beeke Sell Tower’s essay “Of Mice and Manhattan: Sketchbook 1950/7 in the Fogg Art Museum,” The Sketchbooks of George Grosz, ed. Peter Nisbet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 122-126.

[2] George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ian Buruma, “George Grosz’s Amerika,” The New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, 25.

(Image: Two Dead Mice; verso: blank page, 1950-1951; Drawing, Sketchbook Page; Graphite on off-white wove paper, 6 x 9 3/16 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift in gratitude for the friendship and kindness of Dean Wilbur Joseph Bender, 1955.95.21, for non-commercial purposes only.)

 


Misericords Love Company

Robert Thompson, on furniture made for Leeds Girls' High School Library, 1933A wooden bookend or a bowl or a cheese board that features a carved mouse sounds like a mere novelty, yet there are warnings on, of all places, eBay, cautioning potential bidders against frauds, fakes and forgeries. And one begins to understand the value of the object’s possible legacy. Robert Thompson was an original, the only Mouseman, a consummate artist-craftsman of North Yorkshire, England, who came of age in the last decade of the nineteenth century, who snubbed the machine-age in favor of the arts-and-crafts movement, who decided to make the mouse his logo by carving him onto almost every piece of his furniture.

Thompson’s mouse debuted sometime around 1920. “I and another carver were carving a huge cornice for a screen,” Thompson would later write, “and he happened to say something about being as poor as a church mouse. I said I’ll carve a mouse here and did so, then it struck me what a lovely trade mark.”[1] And thus the first of Thompson’s mice was born, the genesis of his moniker “the Mouseman of Kilburn.” His work was of the ecclesiastical nature, woodwork for humble churches and noble cathedrals, across the towns and villages of northern England.

At age fifteen he apprenticed to an engineer about sixty miles southeast of Kilburn, the country village where he was born and raised and where he would return after five years to join his father’s joinery shop. According to Patricia Lennon—author of a small, quirky book that is at once a short biography of Thompson and a travel guide with driving tours to see Thompson’s mice—his trips to and fro during his apprenticeship took him through Ripon and he would frequently stop and admire its cathedral’s 15th century misericords—carvings, often fanciful, found on the underside Robert Mouseman Thompsonof the seats in the choir stall—exquisitely produced by William Bromflet. It was Bromflet’s work that helped Thompson to see how woodworking could be turned into art. Following in the footsteps of his medieval forebears, Kilburn’s Mouseman worked solely with English oak, cured it naturally not in a kiln, and colored the wood with the fuming process—the honeyed tint that is achieved when ammonia interacts with the wood’s tannin. He snubbed nails and screws, eschewed the clackety-clack of mechanized lathes for the opportunity to work his knuckles to the bone. He chose the adze to define his craftsmanship in the soft ripples the shaping tool made in the wood, resulting in furniture that was in equal parts graceful and rustic. By 1930 his small shop was filled with ten apprentices of his own. He considered each one “to be fully trained once they could carve the mouse to his exacting standards.”[2]

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[1] Patricia Lennon, The Tale of the Mouse: The Life and work of Robert Thompson the Mouseman of Kilburn, Great Northern Books, 2001, p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Also, see Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen.

Images: Photograph of Robert Thompson at work; Mouse on one of the pieces of furniture that he made for the Leeds Girls’ High School library, 1933.


From Here to Modernity

Shibata Zeshin Mouse, ca 1870Shibata Zeshin painted them in groups, in threesomes and twosomes, and one by one; he painted one as a monk, another on the shoulder of the god Daikokuten. Mice it seems were a favorite motif. Perhaps his affection for them was inspired by his early studies at Kyoto’s Maruyama-Shijo school of art where he was taught in the tradition of its founder, the celebrated eighteenth century artist Maruyama Okyo who worked from nature. Or perhaps it was a hidden message of support for the merchant class in feudal Japan—mice the ever-familiar token of prosperity.

Considered “history’s greatest lacquer artist,” Shibata Zeshin has the added distinction of being one of the first Japanese artists who became known in the West while alive.[1] He began his training in the arts in 1817 at age eleven. Along with instruction in traditional painting he apprenticed to a lacquer maker; he learned the complexities of the centuries-old craft, mastered the urushi—or the sap collected from the commonly called lacquer trees—that involved no less than thirty-three stages.[2] He became a leading lacquerer of trays and boxes and sword mounts, embedding them according to convention with bits of mother-of-pearl and gold and silver leaf. And in the 1840s when the shoguns decried precious metals in decorative works (“wasteful!” they said), like a politician he spun the bad news into good. He created lacquer techniques that simulated “rusty iron” and oxidized bronze.

Though by the fall of 1868, as any student of Japanese history knows, the shoguns had been toppled, the feudal class exhausted. The Meiji restoration displaced the Edo era. Japan opened its ports, and with the flood of visitors in their western garb Japanese traditional arts began to feel a tug. Their practitioners were left divided between those who accused their fellow artists of pandering to the West and the fellow artists who, in turn, criticized those who remained unbending in the winds of change.

Zeshin, however, soared above the squabble, buoyed by his constant craving for creative innovation. He gave lacquer a whole new purpose. Drawn to European oil paintings, which had begun to trickle into Asia, he was seduced by their rich hues, the startling contrasts in tones. In one fell swoop he merged the East and the West. He took the viscous resin and turned it into a painting medium, finding the right additives to increase its fluidity. He painted with the lacquer on panels and on paper exhilarating colors that had heretofore not been seen; yet, as opposed to many Meiji period painters, he stayed loyal to traditional subject matter, and to his best-loved leitmotif, the mouse.

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[1] Joe Earle, “The Genius Of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin,” Japan Society articles.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: Roderick Conway Morris, “The Meiji Crisis in Japanese Art,” New York Times, March 27, 2013; Robert O. Jacobsen, “Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e,” The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 63 (1976-1977): 4-21; Joe Earle, Meiji No Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan Masterpieces by Shibata Zeshin (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Japanese Art), London: The Kibo Foundation, 1996.

(Image: Mouse, circa 1870, 19.4 x 16.8 cm, Lacquer on paper, The British Museum.)


In the Garden of Good and Evil

Liselot van der Hijden Trapped, 2006Like her fellow Netherlander Hieronymus Bosch who put a mouse in a glass container in his painting the Garden of Earthly Delights five hundred years earlier, Liselot van der Heijden put two mice in a white box with a glass front for her video piece. The artist’s installation is as spare as Bosch’s triptych is teeming. Nevertheless both works stir the same pot—in a manner of speaking: First Sin. While one is biblical, Adam and Eve out of control, the other is political, the United States’ leader run amok.

The New York City-based photographer and video artist van der Heijden created See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil in 2006, against the backdrop of the agenda the Bush administration was pursuing; “a parody,” we’re told, “of the deceptive and manipulative use of Good and Evil to frame foreign and domestic policy… when evil is thought of as not-human, as a thing, or a force, something that has a real existence…”[1] Language and symbolic power are recurring themes in her work.

Three wall-size screens are positioned inside a rectangular space. On the screen at the end, opposite the opening, is a video of a single snake coiling and uncoiling, slithering slowly inside a white box similar to that of the mice, on a twenty-five minute loop. The snake segment is called Serpent—that trickster-tempter of divine knowledge. And on an adjacent small television screen is George W. Bush using the word “evil” in far too many ways, culled from his State of the Union speeches. “Evil is real”; “to see the true evil”; “to hear claims of evil”; “to speak with evil,” the 43rd President says. Meanwhile the mice are displayed to the left; their footage is called Trap. In a continuous replay of twenty minutes, the tiny creatures run around looking for a way out, distracted intermittently by a red apple, the proverbial forbidden fruit. On the facing wall to the mice is a reflection of the mice video and the viewers themselves, courtesy of a real-time feed from a surveillance camera. According to the artist, “representations of nature reveal more about cultural, ideological, political and social frameworks, than actual nature.”[2] We and the mice are one. Bosch, I think, would approve.

 

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[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: LMAK Projects, “See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil: Liselot van der Liselot van der Heijden,” The Village Voice, October 27th, 2006.

(Image: Trap, video still, copyright Liselot van der Heijden.)


When a mouse is not a mouse.

Engelbart's Mouse, Prototype (replica), ca. 1964The body was a wooden case, topped with a tiny red button; a cord ran out of its boxy back, and with a flick of a hand, the palm-size device scurried horizontally or vertically across a flat surface on two wheels set perpendicularly underneath. Someone said, oh, look, it’s a mouse. And thus the prototype, the “X-Y position indicator for a display system,” had just been re-christened, the first computer rodent born.

Douglas Engelbart—who at the age of eighty-eight passed away a week ago today—invented the mouse. A radar technician for the Navy during World War II, and trained electrical engineer and researcher with Stanford [University] Research Institute, director of its experimental lab, Engelbart in 1963 thought “if a computer can punch cards or print paper, it can draw anything you want on a screen.”[1] He made sketches of his imagined pointing gadget that he passed along to his colleague and chief engineer, William English, to build the preliminary model.

Five years later the mouse was ready for its debut; the tiny button controller had proliferated to three, the body a bit more rounded, more polished, but it  ran the same. At a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968 Engelbart brought his vision to life, his talk later dubbed by the Silicon Valley-ites as “the mother of all demos.” In front of one thousand leading computer scientists and for one hundred minutes he sat on stage at a computer keyboard and meticulously showed how his mouse’s movements could astonishingly be translated to a small black “bug” of a cursor on the accompanying 22 x 18-foot movie screen. He also introduced ‘shared-screen’ teleconferencing, multiple windows and text editing and what we now call hypertext. His audience was transfixed, gave him a standing ovation—one computer scientist compared the presentation to Moses parting the Red Sea. The demonstration could surely have blown Steve Jobs and all his “booms” out of the water. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, upon learning of Engelbart’s death, told ABC News, “I have admired him so much. Everything we have in computers can be traced to his thinking. To me, he is a god.”[2]

Soon after his legendary demonstration Engelbart and his team discovered a tiny flaw in their mouse’s design. Unlike that of its counterpart in the wild, the tail instead of creating balance made the computer creature a bit unruly—at least for a user to use, the cord catching around the user’s arm. So they moved the tail to the front, coming from the mouse’s face. Evolution, Darwin might say. Engelbart did say, “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes, I apologize.”[3]

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[1] Quoted from a 1997 CNN interview, “Computer mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart dies,” CNN, July 7, 2013.

[2] Joanna Stern, “Douglas Engelbart, Father of the Computer Mouse, Dies at Age 88,” ABC News, July 3, 2013.

[3] Douglas Engelbart, “Mother of All Demos,” Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, December 2009, http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html#complete

Additional sources: John Markoff, “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” New York Times, July 3, 2013; SRI International; Doug Engelbart Institute; Computer History Museum.

(Image: Engelbart Mouse (produced commerically by SRI for Engelbart’s 1968 demo), ca. 1968, 2 3/8 x 2 3/4 x 4 in., photo credit: Robert Holmgren)


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