Tales In Tech History: The Computer Mouse

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A block of wood, a button and a few rollers transformed the way users interacted with their computers

People today may forget that early computers had no graphical users interface (GUI) and very primitive input mechanisms when compared to their more modern cousins.

But our ability to interact with computers was transformed with the arrival of the computer mouse, invented by Douglas Engelbart way back in the early 1960s.

Block Of Wood

The original mouse was created by Engelbart and his team at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). This was back in 1964 and the mouse later made its first appearance in 1968 during a 90-minute presentation on a “computer-based, interactive, multiconsole display system”.

Doug-EngelbartIt should be noted that the first mouse was a primitive affair. It consisted of a wooden box with a single button on the top side.

Meanwhile inside the box was a circuit board and two wheels (one for the horizontal and another for the vertical) sitting at right angles to each other.

In 1971, a computer engineer (Bill English) joined Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). English has previously worked for Engelbart and had actually built Engelbart’s invention in the 1960s. He evolved the design with the creation of the “Ball Mouse”. This is where the user’s hand sat on the ball itself to manoeuvre the pointer around the screen.

Although both Xerox and Apple shipped computer systems with a mouse, but it was the emergence of Microsoft Windows that really drove the uptake of the device.

Microsoft even designed and manufactured its own brand of mice for a while, and Redmond’s devices were highly regarded back in the day.

Logitech M330 Silent Plus Mouse (3)Over the following decades the mouse evolved to become much more ergonomic. Its tracking mechanisms changed from heavy trackballs (which often became dirty and clogged up with fuzz), to lasers and then LEDs.

But to all intents and purposes, the mouse remains fundamentally pretty much the same device that Engelbart invented in the 1960s.

Unfortunately for Engelbart he did not earn huge rewards for his invention. He had filed a patent for the device in 1967, but it was only granted in 1970. To make matters worse, that patent expired before the takeup of the mouse really gained steam in the mid 1980s, meaning he did not gain financially for his invention.

Engelbart died in his sleep on at the age of 88 in 2013.

End Of The Road?

There is little doubt then that the computer mouse has proved to be a hugely important technology invention. Indeed, Logitech alone claims to have manufactured more than one billion mice.

But questions remain over whether the mouse will eventually become extinct. Today computer interaction is all about human fingers with touchscreens on smartphones and tablets.

Even the mouse’s long standing friend, Microsoft Windows, now has a touchscreen option.

This has led some observers to reckon that with touchscreen acceptance, coupled with other alternatives such as accelerometers (found in the Nintendo Wii controller), augmented reality, and the decline of the desktop computer, the days of the computer mouse are numbered.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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