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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