Who Invented the Computer Mouse and Its Surprisingly Long Journey to Your Desk

Who Invented the Computer Mouse and Its Surprisingly Long Journey to Your Desk


Doug Engelbart is widely credited as the inventor
of the computer mouse. Of course, as with most inventions, nothing
happened in a vacuum and before the device that gave birth to the modern mouse was thought
up, there were several exceptionally similar devices around. For the full story of the invention of the
computer mouse, we’ll begin by backtracking slightly to a British engineer whose invention
was subsequently classified as a military secret and hidden from the public. That engineer was Professor Ralph Benjamin
who, while working for the Royal Navy Scientific Service, invented a device that functioned
in an almost identical fashion to a trackball mouse way back in the mid 1940s. According to a 2013 interview with Dr. Benjamin,
he was tasked by the Royal Navy with helping develop something called the Comprehensive
Display System, an early computer system that could calculate the theoretical trajectory
of monitored aircraft based on the inputs of a user. The cursor on the screen was controlled by
a simple joystick mechanism that Benjamin felt could be improved. After some tinkering, he came up with something
he dubbed the “Roller Ball” which functioned almost identically to a standard mechanical
mouse, with an outer ball that would in turn manipulate two rubber coated wheels inside,
one for the X axis and one for the Y. This movement was then translated into the
appropriate movement of the cursor on the screen. So why don’t people say the good professor
invented the mouse? Beyond that it wasn’t Benjamin’s device
that gave birth to the modern mouse, rather than having the desk or whatever object move
the ball via friction as one moves the mechanical mouse, in Benjamin’s device, your hand simply
directly moved the ball itself, with the top of the device exposing said ball- essentially
it was a large, upside down, stationary mechanical mouse. Although Benjamin’s device was more precise
than a joystick, it was never widely implemented and the Comprehensive Display System continued
to be controlled by said joystick. Due to its status as a military secret, Benjamin
received little to no credit for the invention of essentially a trackball mouse and he remains
an obscure figure in computing history, despite the innovative nature of the device he pioneered. canadian-mouseA similar device was also developed
independently of Benjamin’s design in 1952 by a company, Ferranti Canada, working as
contractors for the Canadian Defence Research Board. The company was, amongst other things, tasked
with creating an input device for computers on a budget of “basically zero dollars”. Three engineers working for Ferranti, Tom
Cranston, Fred Longstaff and Kenyon Taylor, came up with the idea of using a ball housed
in a casing that remained in constant contact with four wheels positioned around it. When the ball was rolled in a given direction,
the movement of the wheels would be translated to corresponding cursor movements on the screen-
essentially this was a four-wheeled version of Benjamin’s device. As a testament to the low budget the engineers
had to work with, rather than constructing a trackball from scratch, they simply used
a 16 cm (about 6 inch) diameter five-pin bowling ball. Because the device was invented for the military,
it too was designed in secret. Ironically, in one notable way these, and
other similar trackball devices that were invented before the mouse, were more similar
to the once ubiquitous ball version of a mechanical mouse than Doug Engelbart’s first mouse. You see, Engelbart’s mouse didn’t use
a ball at all, instead having two perpendicular wheels directly contact the table instead
of using a ball to manipulate said wheels. While still functional, Engelbart’s design
had the downside of making it so one wheel was always at least partially being scraped
along the surface of the desk. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little. Engelbart developed what is the direct ancestor
of the modern mouse in the 1960s as part of an ongoing project to discover the most efficient
way to interact with a computer. Engelbart felt that the current devices in
use at the time, mainly keyboards, joysticks and light pens, were inefficient. With the help of engineer Bill English (who
designed the actual hardware for the first mouse based on Engelbart’s idea), he developed
a handheld device that housed two perpendicular wheels the movements of which would control
the on-screen cursor. Essentially, this more or less worked like
an upside down, hand held version of the two previously mentioned stationary trackball
devices, but without the ball. first-mouse
The First Mouse Engelbart thought up the idea for this device
in 1961. The first prototype was created by English
in 1964. In 1966, Engelbart and English approached
NASA asking them to fund a study to determine which input device was the most intuitive
and efficient for controlling a cursor. According to Engelbart, the devices proposed
to be tested, besides the mouse, were the “light pen… tracking ball and slider on
a pivot”. The space agency agreed and a series of tests
were carried out. Engelbart noted of the tests, “We set up
our experiments and the mouse won in every category, even though it had never been used
before [by the test subjects]. It was faster, and with it people made fewer
mistakes. Five or six of us were involved in these tests,
but no one can remember who started calling it a mouse. I’m surprised the name stuck.” (Engelbart later explained it was called a
mouse due to the fact that initially they had the wire come out of the bottom like a
little tail. They switched it to the top to get around
one’s arm getting tangled in the cord all the time.) first_production_mouseAt the Fall Joint Computer
Conference in San Francisco on December 9, 1968, Engelbart presented this mouse to over
a thousand computer engineers in one of the most influential computing presentations of
all time, later dubbed the The Mother of All Demos. Besides the mouse, Engelbart and his colleagues
also demonstrated in one system a number of revolutionary concepts that are now a staple
of modern computing, including hypertext, video conferencing via a high speed modem,
shared screens via a network (where control could be passed back and forth), a form of
windowed computing, word processing, real time digital text editing with multiple people
able to edit files at the same time (with revision control), and several other forms
of networked collaboration. Further, at a time when the idea of a personal
computer was a little outlandish, he also demoed how such a system could be used for
various personal computing needs, like maintaining a grocery list with robust organizational
features built into the word processor to manage such lists. (You can watch highlights of this phenomenal
time capsule of a presentation here.) Before the presentation, some who’d heard
of what Engelbart was working on had dubbed him a “crackpot”. After the presentation, Engelbart received
a standing ovation and was described by later Xerox PARC employee, Chuck Thacker, as “dealing
lightning in both hands”. However, demonstrating a system amazingly
far ahead of its time left some skeptical that his team’s “oNLine System” (NLS,
developed with funding from DARPA) could actually do what they’d demonstrated. One such individual was famed computer scientist
Andries van Dam, who furiously berated Engelbart after the presentation, stating, “It’s
irresponsible and unethical for you to show something you put together for a demo and
pretend it actually works!” To which Engelbart stated, “No, I told him,
it’s real. He just wouldn’t believe it until he got
to SRI and saw it for himself.” Despite very publicly debuting the mouse to
the best minds of the computing world in 1968, Engelbart’s part in its invention, and even
the monumental presentation itself that greatly influenced so much of the coming decades of
computer development, were largely forgotten. mouse-functionAnd so it was that, like so
many other inventors before him, Engelbart did not receive the credit for his invention
(initially), and Bill English even still receives little credit to this day. This, despite that fact that several years
later English would go on to invent the mechanical mouse that featured a ball to control the
X/Y wheels, which would become the general design of just about all mice until the rise
of things like optical mice. Beyond receiving little credit, because Engelbart
and English were working for Stanford Research Institute when they developed the first mouse,
the eventual patent that was granted for it in 1970 didn’t belong to them. Thus, the pair got no money for their invention
other than their normal paychecks. Stanford Research Institute reportedly did
make some money off the patent before it expired in 1984, for instance reportedly profiting
$40,000 ($130,000 today) when they licensed it to Apple. Speaking of Apple, the mouse as we know it
today rose from obscurity thanks to Steve Jobs being Steve Jobs- i.e. finding an existing
technology, hiring someone to copy it but with very subtle usability tweaks, geniously
marketing it, and then later getting much of the public credit for it. In this case, in 1979, Jobs agreed to give
Xerox a certain number of Apple shares in exchange for allowing him to come see what
Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was working on. When Jobs went on a tour of the research centre,
he encountered a prototype version of the mouse (the ball-mechanical mouse invented
by Bill English, who was now working for Xerox PARC). Jobs recognised the potential of the device
immediately, and, according to Larry Tesler, the engineer who demonstrated the mouse to
Jobs, “He [Jobs] was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could
do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting,
‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’” As it turns out, Xerox was doing something
with the device and had been selling the Xerox Alto along with a trackball mouse since 1973
and would later package it with the Xerox 8010, released in 1981. However, higher ups in the company didn’t
seem to properly appreciated how innovative their system was. As Jobs would later note, “If Xerox had
known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities, it could have been
as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined—and the largest high-technology
company in the world.” Jobs, stunned at this lack of vision, rushed
back to Apple and had his team developing the next iteration of the company’s personal
computer line completely revamp their plans, demanding a window-based system with the mouse
as a key component. According to Dean Hovey, Jobs explained to
him later that week [The Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three
hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs
to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks (about $50 today). It needs to not fail for a couple of years,
and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans. Hovey then explained, “From that meeting,
I went to Walgreens… and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that
I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish [for the body of the
mouse]. That was the beginnings of the [Apple] mouse.” As for why the Apple mouse only had one button,
unlike other mice of the day (for instance, the original had three buttons, which after
much research Engelbert and his team determined was the ideal number), Hovey stated “There
were disputes around the number of buttons—three buttons, two buttons, one-button mouse. The mouse at Xerox had three buttons. But we came around to the fact that learning
to mouse is a feat in and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one
button, was pretty important.” Apple’s first take on the mouse came bundled
with the relatively obscure Apple Lisa computer. (This was named after Job’s daughter who
he denied was his until 1987, despite that a paternity test confirmed Lisa was his daughter
and she and her mother were living in poverty, while he simultaneously was naming Apple Lisa
after her). This first Apple mouse featured a steel ball
to drive the internal tracking wheels. The design was overhauled once again (notably
using a rubber ball) for the more popular Apple Macintosh computer released in 1984
which became one of the first commercially successful devices to make use of a mouse. Microsoft also came out with their own mouse
in 1983 for the PC, in-between Apple Lisa and the much more famous Macintosh 128K, but
it was the latter that subsequently spurred the widespread adoption of the mouse. After the success of the Macintosh, other
companies followed suit and the mouse became a staple of the personal computer. Despite many at various times over the decades
since predicting that the mouse would go the way of the Dodo “any day now” (most recently
because of the rise of the popularity of touch screens), the mouse is still going strong
with seemingly no real end in sight.