About the Computer Mouse


You all know what a mouse is. It’s so common, that you probably don’t even think that much about why it’s called a mouse. But back in 1968, the man generally credited with the invention of the mouse, Douglas Engelbart, had to apologize for what was certainly a silly name.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Episode transcript:

You all know what a mouse is. It’s so common, that you probably don’t even think that much about why it’s called a mouse. But back in 1968, the man generally credited with the invention of the mouse, Douglas Engelbart, had to apologize for what was certainly a silly name.
So how did we get here? Why do most people associate Steve Jobs and not Douglas Engelabrt with the mouse? And why did this form factor prevail over others?
Let’s help you know a little more about the computer mouse.

The closest relative to the mouse is probably the trackball. Heck, some of you probably prefer a trackball to a mouse. Maybe you’re using one right now.
The first trackball was developed in 1946 as an improvement for fire-control radar plotting systems. Military stuff. The Comprehensive Display System, or CDS, calculated the future position of target aircraft based on inputs provided by a user with a joystick. British Royal Navy Scientist Ralph Benjamin thought that the joystick was a bit clunky. Great for flying an airplane maybe but not so precise when plotting coordinates. So he whipped up a prototype of a metal ball rolling on two rubber coated wheels. The Royal Navy patented the device, and classified it as a military secret. But the prototype was the only one ever made.
In 1952, British electrical engineer Kenyon Taylor created a similar input device for the Royal Canadian Navy’s Digital Automated Tracking and Resolving, or DATR. It used a Canadian five-pin bowling ball and four discs to pick up motion and send X and Y coordinates to a digital computer. Not exactly portable but it worked. That one wasn’t patented but it was classified as a military secret.
Both shared the idea of trying to make it easier to deliver x and y coordinates, but they were both fixed in place. It would take another decade for somebody to develop a movable pointing device.
Those of you who listened to our episode about the Mother of All Demos already know that Douglas Engelbart was inspired by Vanevar Bush’s essay “As We May Think” about the Memex, a machine that could process human information. And that Engelbart set about making Bush’s ideas real while at the Stanford Research Institute, where he established the Augmentation Research Center.
Engelbart and his team developed touch screens, video conference, hypertext, and… the mouse.
He was inspired by the planimeter a tool first developed in the 19th century to measure area by tracing its perimeter. It’s basically a big L shaped thing with two arms, one that stays put and the other that moves around so you can trace the perimeter of something, while a wheel or some other mechanism counts out the measurements.
Engelbart wondered if he could adapt some of the principles of the planimeter to input X and Y coordinates to a computer.
On November 14, 1963, Engerlbart jotted down some notes about something he called the “bug.” It would have a “drop point and two orthogonal wheels.” So basically a small little planimeter on wheels. It would be an improvement on a stylus because you could let go and it would stay at the point you left it.
But it wasn’t Engelbart alone that made it a real thing.
In 1964, fellow Navy alum, Bill English joined Englebart’s lab. He helped turn Englebart’s notes into a working prototype.
Those two wheels he mentioned were perpendicular to each other. One for the X axis and one for the Y. Each wheel was connected to what he called a potentiometer – a fancy name for a transistor that can vary its voltage output. The variance was tied to the rolling of the wheel which could be measured to estimate where the device was and translate that into a coordinate system on the display.
It was a boxy thing, but it did have the “tail”, the wire that connected it to the computer, originally coming out of the front, oddly. But it was that cord that led people to think it looked like a mouse. And for some reason the cursor on screen was referred to as CAT.
So it was too perfect. Not bug. Mouse.
But the mouse wasn’t the only input device Engerlbart, English and the ARC team were working on. In fact it wasn’t even their favorite. There was a joystick, a knee control and a touch screen called the Grafacon. But the darling of the team was the light pen. You pointed it at the screen! It was so easy to pick up and use. So intuitive. Almost everyone on the ARC team thought the Light Pen was the one most people would prefer.
As it happened, NASA’s Bob Taylor was working on flight control systems and was looking for new ways to make computers more useful. A light pen might be perfect. So he got funding authorized for Engerlbart’s team to prove the light pen was the best.
Bob English and Bonnie Huddart led the study. The team developed a series of tasks and timed volunteers doing various things like moving a cursor on a screen to random position.
And the light pen did well.
In fact, inexperienced computer users did best with the light pen and the knee control, since they were easy to understand just by using them. But for experienced users? The mouse outperformed all the other options. By a good amount.
And that test led to the first occurrence of the word “mouse” in print to refer to the input device.
English, Engelbart and Huddart co-authored a report on the experiments for NASA called “Computer-aided display control” that mentioned the mouse 26 times. The first reference (not in the table of contents) was on page 14. Here’s what it said. “Within comfortable reach of the user’s right hand is a device called the “mouse,” which we developed for evaluation (along with others, such as light pen, Grafacon, joystick, etc. ) as a means for selecting those displayed text entities upon which the commands are to operate.”
So the mouse was in use and it had been proven to be a superior way of controlling a computer. All that remained was to let the world know. But Engelbart wouldn’t show off his work to the general public until 1968. Which means he got scooped by a few months.
Unbeknownst to Engelbart, in 1966, engineers at Germany’s AEG-Telefunken began work on an input device that could send x and y coordinates to a display. It was shaped like half a sphere and used a 40-millimeter diameter ball with two mechanical transducers to detect positions. That’s right the familiar ball mouse wasn’t made by Engelbart. You can credit that to Rainer Mallebrin.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the problems with the early trackballs was they were big and had to be fixed in place. Telefunken made one for Germany’s Federal Air Traffic Control Mallebrein had the idea of reversing that trackball. Just turn it upside down. Then you could roll it around and make it movable so you didn’t have to worry about where to mount it.
On October 2, 1968, AEG-Telefunken published a brochure showing off an optional input device for the SIG 1000 vector graphics terminal, called Rollkugel Steuerung (German for “rolling ball control”). They were a little expensive. But they ended up at about twenty universities and the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre in Munich.
Even so, Engelabrt still got to make a splash with his mouse in front of a crowd. And his team gets bragging rights for the name. This episode is not, after all, called About the Rollkugelsteuerung.
On December 9, 1968, Engelbart showed off his mouse during what would be known later as the Mother of All Demos.
Bob English was instrumental in helping Engelbart with the demo. He is credited with figuring out how to connect the SRI lab at Stanford with the Civic Auditorium up in San Francisco.
But again if you listened to the Mother of All Demos episode, you know. While it was impressive, it didn’t directly lead to anything.
So slowly after that high moment, members of the lab began to head off in pursuit of their own interests.
In 1971, Bill English left SRI. He didn’t go far. If he’d walked, it might have taken him about an hour. If you leave Stanford, and head down El Camino Real, take a right on Stanford Avenue, and left on Foothill Expressway, you’ll find yourself at the Palo Alto Research Center. These days it’s just called PARC and is in fact part of SRI International. So you would just be going from one part of the organization to the other.
But in 1971 it was better funded and it was called Xerox PARC.
English managed its Office Systems Research Group. And he borrowed that ball idea from Telefunken to create a mouse for Xerox.
It was part of the legendary Xerox Alto released in 1973. Alto was the first desktop computer to use a graphic user interface and a mouse.
Following the Alto, ETH Zurich shipped its Lilith computer with a version of a mouse as well.
But the one most computer folks of the time will remember was the mouse that came with the Xerox 8010 Star personal computer in 1981. If you had the $16,500 to buy one anyway. It became the best known computer with a mouse to that time, but it was still an obscure device. Jack Hawley manufactured the mouse for Xerox and pretty much had the market to himself.
Competition arrived slowly. Logitech, probably the top mouse brand in 2023, showed off its first mouse, the P4, at Comdex in 1982. Microsoft made Microsoft Word mouse-compatible that same year and shipped its own mouse a year later in 1983, the first product from Microsoft Hardware.
Apple’s ill-fated Lisa, its first attempt to replicate and modernize the Xerox Alto came out in 1983 with a mouse. But it’s a legendary flop.
It was January 30, 1984 that changed the course of the mouse.
Apple’s Macintosh did a lot of things right, including the mouse. Remember that study back in 1965 that found the mouse was best for experienced users.
The Mac wasn’t meant for experienced users. So they built in a guide to get you up to speed. It was so important, that Rony Sebak, the person who wrote the guide, was up on stage, with the engineers of RAM and circuit boards during the announcement!
That made the mouse mainstream.
Over time the mouse lost much of what made it mouse-like. Both Steven Kirsch and Richard F. Lyon independently created an optical mouse in 1980. First with LEDs and later with lasers, the optical mouse replaced the need for the ball to detect position. And eliminated the need to pull the ball out and clean it. Sometimes by inadvisedly popping it in your mouth.
The Mouse lost its tail too. The first wireless mouse came along in September 1984. Logitech made the infrared mouse for the Metaphor computer, made by former Xerox PARC employees David Liddle and Donald Massaro. Infrared needed line of sight though. But RF and later Bluetooth would make the wireless mouse mainstream.
And these days there’s a seemingly infinite variety. Pucks, force feedback, tower-like ergonomic forms and more.
Even the number of buttons has changed. Engelbart’s original prototype had one button. The one he demonstrated in 1968 had three. The Alto’s also had three. Microsoft’s had two. Apple went back to one. Today a mouse usually has one or two main buttons but also scroll wheels side buttons and more customizations.
But at base they all work the same way. Detect movement in two dimensions and then translate that into data a display can use to replicate that movement with a graphic on a screen.
Engelbart made $10,000 off the invention of the mouse, a lump sum paid by SRI for the patent. English didn’t get rich off the mouse and retire either. After leaving Xerox in 1989, he worked for Sun Microsystems for years.
And what about Bonnie Huddart? The other name on that report that first mentioned the mouse. She left SRI shortly after its publication and became the first director of the computer center at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
The only one that made much money off the mouse was SRI which held the patent. It was granted in 1970 and expired in 1987. But even SRI didn’t make much. Xerox, Microsoft and Apple all licensed it from SRI. The general belief is that Apple paid around $40,000 for its license, though there’s no definitive record. Suffice to say it wasn’t a lot of money considering how transformative the mouse would become.
But that’s not why Engelbart did any of this. He wasn’t trying to make a bundle of money, heck he wasn’t even trying to invent the mouse.
He was trying to make the world better.
In 2008 he spoke to a crowd at Google as part of a panel called ‘Inventing the Computer Mouse. He talked about how he got started developing technology like the mouse.
I’d argue that the mouse has played a pretty pivotal part in making the world better.
And I hope now you know a little more about the Computer Mouse.

Know A Little More is researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos and Dog and Pony Show Audio. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.