Computer mouse 25.09.13

Written by 

Icon-123 IoTM mouse-inside

Created 50 years ago at Stanford, this point-and-click device named after the common rodent was a visionary invention, developed long before the internet even existed

On even the most ordinary work days, my routine involves powering up my Mountain Lion (operating system), opening up my Launchpad (application manager), scanning my feeds (in a Safari browser, naturally), and logging into a Gmail account that, until fairly recently, kept a running count of free space that seemed to expand infinitesimally. It sounds more adventurous than the reality – though the use of hyperbolic metaphor has long dulled upon the lay Mac user's ears.

Aiding the ability to do all of the above is the mouse: that quaint, yet stalwart, point-and-click enabler. Platform-agnostic, nimble in name and purpose, the handheld input device – often manifested as an arrow cursor or text bracket, and serving as an extension of our own hand – turns half a century old this year.

"I don't know why we call it a mouse," said engineer Douglas Engelbart, as he introduced the first prototype at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on 9 December 1968. "Sometimes I apologise – it started that way, and we never did change it." Created by Engelbart and 17 other researchers at the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute, the prototype was roughly five years into development: a long process that thankfully eliminated earlier, less effective models involving a user's leg and chin movements.

Often mistaken as an acronym for "manually operated user selection equipment", the name, in fact, refers to the object's physical likeness to the common rodent, with its diminutive size and tail-like cord. The deceptively simple, cutely illustrative analogy was more of a stretch then, as Engelbart unveiled a three-button, rectangular wooden box that encased two "chopper wheels", like miniature hamster wheels or the steel blades of a pizza slicer.

Set in perpendicular orientation to each other, the mechanism rolled up and down and side to side when set on a flat surface, navigating along the axes of a two-dimensional Cartesian plane. An on-screen cursor would then translate its measured movements to specific coordinates. Engelbart and his team registered the device for its 1970 patent in the plainest terms: "X-Y position indicator for a display system."

A significant stride in the development of personal computing, the mouse was one among a suite of concepts that Engelbart presented in 1968 as part of his NLS (short for "oNLine System"), including digital text-editing, hyperlinking and networked collaboration, well before the development of the internet. Engelbart received a standing ovation for his presentation, which has since been hailed as "the mother of all demos".

He was perhaps too far ahead of the curve for his own good, though: by the time the mouse made its way to the consumer market in the 1980s, as standard inclusions by manufacturers such as Xerox and Apple, his patent had expired, voiding any royalties.

Engelbart, who was able to witness his prophetic contributions become reality, and the wild innovations that have unfolded in interactive design. The mouse itself has taken on many incarnations: from optical, cordless, button-less variants; to touch pads, touch screens and voice-commanded systems, such as Apple's Siri, which forgo dependence on the mouse altogether; to the next wave of wearable technology, as presented by Google Glass, which allows users to operate a system with the literal blink of an eye.

Even as it has veered away from biological analogy and transitioned to skeuomorph, inching towards obsolescence, the mouse's legacy is far from extinct. Documented in grainy black-and-white celluloid, compressed to digital format and uploaded on to YouTube in nine parts, Engelbart's visionary demo persists in popularity among tech aficionados and countless curious users to this day.

"I wanted to demonstrate the flexibility a computer could offer," Engelbart humbly stated, in recent years. "The world of tomorrow."



Aileen Kwun



SRI International

quotes story

I don't know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes I apologise – it started that way, and we never did change it

Leave a comment

Click to show