1967: The mighty mouse
July 7, 1999
by Laura Hunt
(IDG) -- On June 21, 1967, Doug Engelbart applied for a patent on his X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System, now better known as the mouse. It was a device that he had been thinking about and working on for more than a decade.
He publicly demonstrated the mouse a year later on the Online System. He also demonstrated videoconferencing and hypermedia. Those "inventions" weren't designed to make money or create a product. Rather, they were part of Engelbart's desire to "find much better ways for people to work together to make this world a better place."
Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape Communications Corp., has said of Engelbart and his colleagues, "The biggest difference in innovators like Doug is that the human impact was foremost in their minds, a social idealism that isn't there today."
Engelbart recently spoke with Computerworld about the mouse and its development.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of the mouse?
A: I had sketched it out in notebooks that I carried around for years. I had been thinking since around 1951 about using a computer interactively and had been exploring ways for people to increase their problem-solving capability on complex problems.
In the early '60s, I was at a conference, in a less than interesting session, and I started sketching out the concept, based on a funny device [a planimeter] that I had seen in a laboratory. I started to convert the mechanical device to digital distance and sketched out a device using two perpendicular wheels underneath to track motion.
In 1964, I think, we got money to do some experimenting with what kinds of devices we could use for pointing, and I went back and found my notes on the device.
Q: Why a mouse, instead of other devices?
A: There were four or five of us involved in the research, getting it built and so on. After experiments with other devices (light pens, joysticks, etc.), the mouse outshined them all. We started using it ourselves. We were looking for the best, most efficient, device. The team developed a set of simple tasks and timed a group doing the tasks with the various devices, and the mouse performed the best.
Q: Why is it called a mouse?
A: It looked like a mouse with a tail, and we all called it that in the lab. After we started using it ourselves, and then it became more and more widespread, we felt that it would get an appropriately dignified name, but it hasn't!
Q: The world got a look at the mouse during a now-famous 1968 demonstration at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which is still referred to as "the mother of all demos."
A: Yes, the mouse was just a piece of the demonstration of "augmenting knowledge workers." The rest of the world was focused on "office automation," feeling that the "real user" of computers was a secretary who needed tasks automated. This was very disappointing to us and pushed us out of research for a while.
Then I ended up at the [SRI], where I could pursue my goal to develop systems that would augment the human intellect. At the end of 1968, we had developed not only the mouse, but also full-screen editing, a Windows-like interface, links and hypermedia, a sort of PowerPoint. We also demonstrated teleconferencing, using leased video lines and camera views of my colleagues in the lab. It showed collaborative computing -- an intuitive picture of how things could be. We also used a chord key set [a five-finger equivalent of a keyboard] as a pointing device, which I still use on my computer today.
Q: How close are we to your goal of augmentation vs. automation?
A: Not that close. Well, if you think of the problem as 20,000 feet high, we are now at the Everest point, say 6,000 feet. It's a problem of the human system vs. a tool system; we'll never get there if we just concentrate on the tools. The human side has to adapt and change, engage in really concentrated co-evolution.
Q: Is there anything else to add?
A: It's all too easy to classify me as a historical object, but I'm not done yet. Please don't put me on the shelf with the other historical objects.
You can check up on Engelbart's continuing work at www.bootstrap.org. You can also view the 1968 demo at sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html (links below).
Hunt is Computerworld's editorial research librarian. You can contact her at email@example.com.
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