Science history: the traps of building a better mouse

The computer mouse is a ubiquitous device, but who actually invented it is the subject of considerable debate. Jeff Glorfeld reports.

A replica of the first computer mouse developed by Xerox.

Aric Crabb/Digital First Media/Bay Area News via Getty Images

Not so long ago, before the ubiquity of the smartphone, a person reading this would most likely have one hand poised on or near a computer mouse.

Perhaps more than any other technical innovation of the computer age, the mouse opened up the wide digital world.

Less than 40 years ago the device emerged from the famed Silicon Valley of northern California, a bubbling cauldron of technological invention and innovation. Its arrival, however, was not the invention of any one person or group – although many have claimed credit.

According to several sources, including this, from Wired magazine, the first integrated mouse intended for use with a personal computer appeared in public with the Xerox Star workstation on 27 April 1981.

According to Time magazine, it was at first called, uncomfortably, the “X-Y position indicator for a display system”, but by the time of its debut it had acquired its more familiar and enduring name.

As for who actually invented the thing, the story becomes complicated.

Doug Engelbart is one person widely credited as its inventor. He was a scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), part of the renowned California university campus, who had the idea of moving a cursor around a computer screen with the aid of a mechanical device that would do so more efficiently than the prevailing technologies, such as joysticks.

Engelbart demonstrated his prototype mouse at a conference in San Francisco, California, in December 1968.

He died on 2 July 2013. In its obituary for him, the New York Times tells how he sketched out his idea for the machine and gave it to SRI mechanical engineer Bill English, who built a proof-of-concept: a pine case to hold the mechanical contents, and only one button, “even though Dr Engelbart felt that as many as 10 buttons would be more useful”.

Rather than the internal trackball that became common in later years, Engelbart’s device had two wheels, one horizontal and one vertical. By the time of its 1968 debut, it had been upgraded to a three-button device.

In 1971, English left SRI and went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre, at that time one of the most dynamic technology companies in the world. A year later, working with Jack Hawley, he designed a version that replaced the wheels of Engelbart’s original and replaced them with a tracking ball.

This became the industry standard until the development of the optical mouse, which became standard around 1998.

However, their deployment of a ball-driven device was preceded by Ralph Benjamin, working for Britain’s Royal Navy Scientific Service, who reportedly invented a machine that functioned in an almost identical fashion to a trackball mouse in the mid-1940s.

Much computer myth surrounds the late Steve Jobs, the man who made Apple into a household name in computers. For one thing, it’s been said that it was him who invented the mouse. In fact, all he did was realise its potential.

In a wonderful 2011 New Yorker article, titled “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation”, writer Malcolm Gladwell tells the story.

He explains how in 1979 Jobs offered Xerox executives the opportunity to buy shares in Apple, a company on the brink of greatness, in exchange for a look at what Xerox developers were working on.

Xerox had developed a computer that used a mouse to navigate through “windows” and click on icons to perform functions.

Jobs “raced back to Apple and demanded that the team working on the company’s next generation of personal computers change course. He wanted menus on the screen. He wanted windows. He wanted a mouse. The result was the Macintosh [released in 1984], perhaps the most famous product in the history of Silicon Valley.”

Gladwell continues his story. Jobs met with industrial designer Dean Hovey and told him to build a mouse.

“I was, like, what’s a mouse?” Hovey recalls. “I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost $300 to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than 15 bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my blue jeans’.”

He told Gladwell how he went from the meeting with Jobs to a local pharmacy and “bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles