Computer Mouse: Complete History

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Computer Mouse: Complete History

Douglas Engelbart in 1984, showing the first mouse and a new one.

Douglas Engelbart in 1984, showing the first mouse and a new one.

Four Facts About the Computer Mouse

  • Douglas Engelbart and Bill English named their first prototype after the rodent due to its shape. The name computer “mouse” has been used ever since the first prototype.
  • The primary inventor of the mouse, Doug Engelbart, never received any royalties because the patent was held by the Stanford Research Institute.
  • Engelbart stated that the plural of the computer mouse is “mice” but many dictionaries also accept “mouses.”
  • In early 1967, Engelbart and English considered using a “knee-control” device that appeared promising. That device was based on Engelbart’s observation that the human foot was a pretty sensitive controller of the gas pedal in cars.

The Computer Mouse History

An early model of the computer mouse.

The first computer mouse was conceived in the early 1960s by Douglas Engelbart. At the time, he was the director of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), in Menlo Park, California. The mouse was just a tiny piece of a much larger project, started in 1962, aimed at augmenting human intellect. At the time of the invention of the mouse, Engelbart had already been exploring possible ways for people to increase their capability to solve complex problems for almost a dozen years. After Engelbart got the idea, he hired Bill English, who had been working in another lab at SRI, to make the hardware design. Later on, the group was joined by Jeff Rulifson, who made a big difference in the quality of the software involved.

Doug Engelbart and William (Bill) English envisioned problem-solvers using computer-aided working stations to augment their efforts. They required the ability to interact with information displays using some sort of device to move a cursor around the screen. There were several types of devices then in use or being considered for use: the light pen, joysticks, etc. Engelbart and English, however, were looking for the best and the most efficient device. In 1964, the first prototype of a computer mouse was made to use with a graphical user interface (GUI), “windows.”

Quick Facts

Douglas Engelbart, Bill English
Original Use
Interact with graphical user interface

They approached NASA in 1966, and with NASA funding, the team developed types of tasks and timed a group of volunteers in doing those tasks with the various devices. For example, the computer would generate an object in a random position on the screen and a cursor somewhere else. They timed how long it took the users to move the cursor to the object. It quickly became clear that the mouse out-performed all the others. Devices like the light pen simply took too much time, by repeatedly requiring the user to pick up the pointer and reach all the way to the screen, which was very tiresome.

The Engelbart mouse, which used two discs to indicate an X-Y position and only one button, was difficult to use. These facts led Bill English to introduce the first ball mouse in 1972.

The Computer Mouse: How It Worked

Doug Engelbart's first mouse.

Doug Engelbart’s first mouse.

The original mouse had the cord in the front, but they quickly moved it to the back end to get it out of the way. It was a simple mechanical device with two perpendicularly mounted discs on the bottom. You could tilt or rock the mouse to draw perfectly straight horizontal or vertical lines.

Engelbart applied for a patent in 1967 and received it in 1970 as an assignor of SRI for the wooden shell with two metal wheels. He created the device to function as an X-Y position indicator for a display system. “It was nicknamed the mouse because the tail came out the end,” Engelbart revealed about his invention. His version of windows and GUI was not considered patentable (no types of software were issued patents at that time), but Engelbart had over 45 other patents to his name at the end of his career.

The first production workstation and mouse.

The first production workstation and mouse.

The two metal discs could control the X-Y position but had limited practical uses. These wheels could only move on particular surfaces, so the design was improved by Bill English with the first ball mouse. The basic computer mouse design was further improved by Apple as part of its evolution to modern-day designs.

The Computer Mouse: Historical Significance

Bill English, Engelbart's lead engineer, testing the first mouse and keypad.

Bill English, Engelbart’s lead engineer, testing the first mouse and keypad.

The first production workstation and mouse were made in 1967. The mouse, as well as other advanced technologies, were demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in the famous demonstration of experimental computer technologies on December 9th, 1968. Known as “The Mother of All Demos,” Engelbart featured the introduction of the computer mouse, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor.

Engelbart, the inventor of one of the most popular computer interface devices ever, didn’t receive any royalties for inventing the first computer mouse or any other evolution of this invention.

Modern-day wireless computer mouse.

The first cordless mouse was shipped in September 1984 with the Metaphor computer of David Liddle and Donald Massaro, former Xerox PARC engineers. The computer also had a cordless keyboard and function keypad for various uses.

The mouse was built for Metaphor by Logitech and used infrared (IR) signals to transmit mouse data to the computer. The problem with such devices that used IR technology was that, in order to work, they needed a clear line of sight between the mouse and the computer’s receiver. This became a problem on a cluttered desk. Cordless mice did not get traction until this problem was solved. This was accomplished by replacing IR with radio frequency (RF) communications.

The First Commercial Mouse

April 27, 2021 marked the 40th birthday of the first commercial computer mouse. On April 27, 1981, this mouse was sold as an accessory to a computer that was really far to expensive for any average Joe to own. The computer was  Xerox Star, or the 8010 Information System. A stand-alone model with the software cost a whopping $16,500, which is close to $50,000 if you think of it in today’s market. What was even worse was that the computers were designed to function in a network, so the cost would have been even greater.

While the Xerox Star was a commercial flop, the mouse lived on, subsequently accompanying MacIntosh computers, as well as Apple’s Lisa computer. Until this point, the mouse had only been an experimental device. Though the Xerox Star, as a package, didn’t impress, it did demonstrate the mouse as a valuable asset that could be sold to the public. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a computer mouse?

A computer mouse is a cursor-controlling device used with a graphical user interface. It can be used to move, select, point, and other uses.

What was the first computer mouse invented?

Doug Engelbart invented the first computer mouse as an SRI engineer in 1964. Bill English invented the first ball mouse in 1972, one of many advancements in the evolution of the mouse.

How does a computer mouse work?

A mouse has a wheel or LED light to register and transmit movements in the X and Y axes, along with one or more buttons. It sends signals to the computer using one of these types of technologies: a cord, infrared signals, or radiofrequency.

Who invented the computer mouse?

Douglas Engelbart and William English worked together to create the mouse in the early 1960s, though Englebart is traditionally credited with the invention.

How was the computer mouse invented?

Douglas Engelbart was looking for a more convenient way to control a cursor on a graphical user interface. He conceived of a mouse as part of a series of experiments to improve joysticks, light pens, and other technologies.

Is the computer mouse still used?

Yes, the computer mouse is still in use. Laptop computer trackpads and touchscreens are other common ways to interact with a graphical user interface but a computer mouse is still a popular option.

Where was the first computer mouse invented?

Doug Engelbart invented the computer mouse at Stanford University while working at the Stanford Research Institute.

What was the first computer mouse made of?

The first computer mouse was made of wood and had a single button on the top, which was soon improved with a three-button design.

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