Douglas Englebart’s mouse lives on even after his passing
Valley pioneer outlined his idea in 1968, years before the arrival of the PC or the internet
Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse was a true Silicon Valley pioneer.
For an innocuous-looking, rolling thingamajig the size of a deck of cards, the computer mouse certainly has gone far (even if typically tethered on a wire, rarely more than a foot away from its computer).
It certainly is not the most intuitive or obvious device – at least at first try and first glance – especially when you look at the boxy, wood prototypes created by mouse inventor Douglas Englebart, who died last week at the age of 88.
Englebart was a true Silicon Valley pioneer, spending most of this life working in the Valley and helping think up some of the most important innovations underlying the way we interact and work with computers today.
Although best known for the really quite extraordinary idea that a rolling device held in one hand could be a superior way to work on a computer screen – when the keyboard was king – Englebart was also involved with the creation of hypertext (interactive, linked text, which now under- lies the way we move by embedded link, through the web), collaboration over shared screens, dynamic file linking and more.
All of this he demonstrated in 1968 – long before the PC and the internet, much less the web – in a 90 minute presentation, made with fellow researchers from the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California.
There’s a fantastic stream of the entire presentation at sloan.stanford.edu/mouse site/1968Demo.html, in which Englebart suggests viewers think about the then- amazing notion “if you had a workstation at your disposal all day that was perfectly responsible . . . or responsive”.
You can also view smaller snippets that have been reformatted in Flash, if you want to focus on on a specific element of the talk, such as his demonstration of the mouse (see clip 12).
Why “mouse”? “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. It started that way and we never changed it,” Englebart explained.
It was about another two decades before the mouse began to be shipped with a tiny handful of computers – notably, Apple Macs.
I remember well my own first encounter with this seemingly odd device. I had been using PCs for a couple of years at that point and was quite used to the keyboard and screen with blinking cursor, the basic tools of the command line interface (think: words on a screen, generally luminous green or orange on black, in retro hacker movies where computers make noises they never make in real life).