Published:  01:01 AM, 03 March 2018

The History of the Computer Mouse

Technology visionary Douglas Engelbart (January 30, 1925 - July 2, 2013) changed the way computers worked, from specialized machinery that only a trained scientist could use, to a user-friendly tool that almost anyone can work with. He invented or contributed to several interactive, user-friendly devices: the computer mouse, windows, computer video teleconferencing, hypermedia, groupware, email, the Internet and more.

Engelbart conceived of the rudimentary mouse during a conference on computer graphics when he started thinking about how to improve interactive computing. In the early days of computing, users typed codes and commands to make things happen on monitors. Engelbart came up with the idea of linking the computer's cursor to a device with two wheels-one horizontal and one vertical. Moving the device on a horizontal surface would allow the user to position the cursor on the screen.

Engelbart's collaborator on the mouse project, Bill English, built a prototype-a hand-held device carved out of wood, with a button on the top, an In 1967, Engelbart's company SRI filed for the patent on the mouse, although the paperwork identified it a little differently: "x,y position indicator for a display system." The patent was awarded in 1970.

Before long, computers designed to work with a mouse were released. Among the first was the Xerox Alto, which went on sale in 1973.A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich liked the concept as well and built their own computer system with a mouse called the Lilith computer from 1978 to 1980. Perhaps thinking they were on to something, Xerox soon followed up with the Xerox 8010, which featured a mouse, ethernet networking and e-mail among various innovative technologies that have since become standard.

But it was in 1983 that the mouse started to go mainstream. It was that year that Microsoft updated the MS-DOS program Microsoft Word to make it mouse-compatible and developed the first PC-compatible mouse. Computer manufacturers such as Apple, Atari and Commodore would all follow suit by debuting mouse compatible systems as well. 

Like so much in computer technology, the mouse has evolved significantly. In 1972, English developed the "track ball mouse" that allowed users to control the cursor by rotating a ball from a fixed position. One interesting enhancement is that many devices are now wireless, a fact that makes this Engelbart recollection of an early prototype almost quaint: "We turned it around so the tail came out the top. We started with it going the other direction, but the cord got tangled when you moved your arm.

The inventor, who grew up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, hoped his achievements would add to the collective intelligence of the world."It would be wonderful," he once said, "if I can inspire others, who are struggling to realize their dreams, to say 'if this country kid could do it, let me keep slogging away'."

Mary Bellis has been writing about inventors since 1997. She also loves to tinker (invent) and spends too much time in her workshop developing her ideas.

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