Who Invented the Computer? Mouse Men
One of the most commonplace yet overlooked tools of the information age is the humble mouse. It occupies prime real estate on desktops everywhere and plays a huge role in everyday use of computers. The mouse is also a movie star with a massive catalog of silver screen appearances, although none so endearing as when DeForest Kelly hands one to James Doohan.
The origin story of this modest PC peripheral begins back in 1946, when the British Empire — along with most of the world — was recovering from the Second World War. Many engaged in military research at the time were earnestly pursuing various efforts to forestall a third such conflagration.
Professor Ralph Benjamin (1922-2019) was hard at work in the Royal Navy’s science division trying to devise a way to improve a display system that was used to calculate theoretical trajectories of monitored airplanes. Up until that time, British air defense personnel utilized a joystick mechanism to control an on-screen cursor while tracking planes.
The process was serviceable, but also clunky and prone to human error. Benjamin inserted a round-ball into a wooden cradle with wheel sensors attached to the side and created a basic track-ball system. As the ball was manipulated by hand, it would in turn manipulate two rubber-coated wheels attached to the cradle — one wheel for the X-axis and one for the Y-axis. The movement of the ball would be translated into the appropriate movement of an onscreen cursor.
Benjamin’s trackball proved more precise than a joystick but was not widely implemented. Familiarity often trumps innovation and the Royal Navy chose to continue using the joystick that officers were already accustomed to. Even worse for Benjamin, since he was working for the Navy, his invention was classified top-secret and never gained widespread recognition.
The second invention of the mouse
Somewhat surprisingly, no further work to create any similar device was done until 1961 when Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013), an engineer at the Stanford Research Institute (“SRI”), conceptualized a device that would become the ancestor of the modern computer mouse. Engelbart was part of a team working on making interactive computing more efficient. Existing methods included keyboards, light pens, and joy sticks; each was widely viewed as slow and difficult to operate with exactness.
Engelbart conceived of a handheld device consisting of an outer shell with two wheels inside, one wheel turning horizontally and the other vertically. The device would be connected to a computer that could track the combined rotations of both wheels and move the on-screen cursor accordingly.
Another SRI engineer, Bill English (1929-2020), was recruited to craft a prototype. He completed his model in 1964. It was a small wooden container with two electrical mechanisms inside that tracked the horizontal and vertical wheels as they moved around a desktop. In operation, the device was similar to an upside-down track-ball machine but without the ball.
The invention’s official name was the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” — but because of its size and the wire connecting it to the computer coming out of the back portion of the housing, the duo referred to it as a “mouse.” The wire would eventually be relocated to the front of the housing to avoid entangling the user’s arm.
Engelbart and English were so confident that their mouse was the most efficient way to control a cursor that they convinced NASA to fund trials comparing various input devices. The mouse won overwhelmingly — it was faster than all other devices and operated with far fewer mistakes.
A smashing debut
The mouse’s public unveiling occurred on Dec. 9, 1968, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s fall conference in San Francisco. Due to the number of fundamental elements of modern-day computing that were demonstrated, the conference has ever since been referred to as, “The Mother of All Demos.”
Besides the mouse, other important advances presented that day include windowed computing, hyperlinks, graphics, video conferencing, word processing, and real-time digital text editing. Engelbart even found time to demonstrate the practicability of using a computer system for personal computing needs such as managing a grocery list.
Prior to Engelbart’s mouse presentation, other attendees openly mocked him, calling him a “crackpot.” Once his demo was finished, however, he received a standing ovation.
English later improved on the mouse, inserting a metal ball to control the X and Y wheels. This improvement remained the general design for mice until the invention of optical mice. Sadly, as employees of SRI when the mouse was created, Neither English nor Engelbart received any compensation beyond their regular salaries.
Regrettably — and somewhat surprisingly, given its sterling debut — the mouse languished in relative obscurity until 1979 when Apple CEO, Steve Jobs was touring the Xerox research center and saw a prototype of the mouse being used on the Alto computer. The Alto was a little used machine designed to support an operating system based on a graphical user interface (GUI).
Jobs was thrilled. Watching the mouse being used on the Alto he shouted, “Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing! This is revolutionary!”
Along came Steve Jobs
After asking more questions about the mouse, Jobs hurried back to Apple where he told his team working on the next iteration of the company’s personal computer line to revamp their plans. He now wanted a windows-based system with a mouse interface. His order to chief engineer Dean Hovey was simple:
“I want a mouse that cost less than $50, lasts at least two years, and that I can use on Formica and on my blue jeans.”
Hovey admitted that at first, he had no idea how to meet Jobs’ specifications, but soon got to work. He went to Walgreens and bought up all the underarm deodorants that used a ball as an applicator and a butter dish that would become the body of the mouse.
The market-ready mouse contained a metal ball and Apple began selling it in 1983 alongside their little-known Apple Lisa computer. Lisa was named after Jobs’ daughter — born out of wedlock — who he refused to recognize at that time. Like its paternally neglected namesake, the computer wasn’t widely accepted either.
The mouse would finally gain widespread recognition and traction in 1984, when Apple unveiled the Macintosh computer with a rubber instead of metal ball. Seeing the success of the Macintosh models, other computer manufacturers followed Apple’s lead and the mighty mouse quickly became a personal computer staple.
The advent of touch screens caused many computer gurus to predict the death of the mouse, but it continues strong to this day. With more than 5 million mouses sold in the U.S. annually, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Fun fact: Those little mice on our desks move around a great deal. According to Mousotron, an app that monitors keyboard and mouse activity, the average office worker’s mouse travels approximately one mile per week — typically in increments of between 1 and 2 inches. That’s an impressive 12,672 inches per day.