Doug Engelbart invented the computer mouse in the early 1960s in his research lab at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). The first prototype was built in 1964, the patent application for this “X-Y position indicator for a display system” was filed in 1967, and US Patent 3,541,541 was awarded in 1970.
The basic idea for the mouse first came to Engelbart in 1961 while sitting in a conference session on computer graphics, his mind mulling over the challenge of making interactive computing more efficient.
It occurred to him that, using a pair of small wheels traversing a tabletop, one wheel turning horizontally, one turning vertically, the computer could track their combined rotations and move the cursor on the display accordingly. The wheels could function something like the wheels on a planimeter a tool used by engineers and geographers to measure areas on a map, blueprint, drawing, etc. but in this case, rolling the wheels around on the tabletop would plot the x,y coordinates for a cursor on a computer screen. He recorded the idea in his notebook for future reference.
A little over a year later, Engelbart received a long-awaited grant at SRI to launch his dream research initiative titled “Augmenting Human Intellect,” for which he envisioned intellectual workers sitting at high-performance interactive display workstations, accessing a vast online information space in which to collaborate on important problems. He hired a small research team, and set up a basic lab with computer and teletypes, and finally, a display terminal.
By now there were several off-the-shelf solutions for moving a cursor and selecting something on a display screen, but no good data about which would be most efficient to meet Engelbart’s “high-performance” requirement. He applied for and was awarded a small grant from NASA to explore that question.
Engelbart and his research staff rounded up then best-of-breed pointing devices to compare, and rigged up some in-house prototypes to add to the mix, such as a foot pedal and a knee-operated device. Engelbart also reviewed his earlier notes with his lead engineer Bill Engllish, who built a prototype of the hand-held device with perpendicular wheels mounted in a carved out wooden block, with a button on top, to test with the others. This was the first mouse.
The history of the modern mouse credits none other than Steve Jobs as its inventor. In an episode of NPR’s All Things Considererd, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story about how Jobs first brought the mouse to Apple. It’s a fantastic look inside Jobs’ brain, and how he could reduce a complicated concept down to its essence for mass consumption.
According to Gladwell, when Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1970s, he was amazed by what he saw: a demonstration of a new three-button computer mouse. But it cost $300. So Jobs took the concept to industrial designer Dean Hovey, who improved the mouse by dropping two of its buttons ¦ and, along with them, the mouse’s build price, which sank to just $15.
Today’s devices look nothing like Engelbart’s nor Jobs’ designs, yet even though many impressive innovations for interacting with computers have followed in the 50+ years since its invention, the mouse remains to this day the most efficient hands-on pointing device available for speed and accuracy.