made of wood, with metal wheels and invented half a century ago

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Clear things from minute one. When Douglas Engelbart, head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford, wanted to interview a new recruit, he gave him a pencil taped to a brick and then asked him to write his name on a piece of paper. Difficult, right? joked Engelbart, a doctor in electrical engineering and a pioneer in computer development. Well, people would encounter the same problems —he explained to the candidates— if they weren’t capable of offering them more agile and simpler tools to manage computers.

He wasn’t talking just to talk.

Engelbart, together with one of his companions, also an engineer William Englishwas the father of the first mouse computer in the 1960s. Only that time was not called a mouse, but XY Position Indicator for a Display System; and its design was quite different from the modern peripherals that we handle today. To begin with, it was made of wood and had a pair of metal wheels.

This is his story.

Make it easy for people: “Click”

In the early 1960s, Engelbart, a World War II veteran, recent Ph.D., with just a couple of years of experience at the Stanford Research Institute —today known as SRI— had a clear idea: he wanted accessible technology. And simple. In 1945, while serving in the US Navy, he had read an article by the inventor Vannevar Bush that encouraged scientists to bring knowledge to the street and he was determined to transfer that slogan to his own field. The golden opportunity came when the Department of Defense, through DARPAgave him the necessary support to set up his own center in the SRI, the ARC.

There he came to have nearly fifty people working for him and his efforts were focused on answering one question: What would the future of computer communication look like? By then computing had been rolling for decades, years ago IBM had manufactured the IBM 650 and the team was convinced of the enormous potential of the sector. The question was how to handle it and prevent the systems from being as unwieldy as a pencil stuck to a brick.

At that time the most popular device for pointing on a screen were the light pens, a system similar to that used in military radars. Since 1961 Engelbart, however, ruminated on an alternative to make interaction with computers more efficient: install a pair of small wheels across a table so that the user could use them to control the cursor on the screen. One would rotate horizontally and the other vertically and its operation would be very similar to the planimeter commonly used by surveyors, geographers, and architects.

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The idea had been recorded in his notebook, but late in the 1960s, with the financial backing of DARPA, his own team and extra help from NASA, Engelbart was able to delve into it. The veteran and his colleagues gathered the best signaling equipment in existence and made a sort of brainstorming that left half a dozen proposals to work with the monitors, some of the most curious, such as a joystick or a light pen. Perhaps the most striking of all was a mechanism that was fixed under the table and operated with the knee.

A prototype nicknamed “mouse”

Among that amalgamation was also included a small device made by Bill English after reviewing with Engelbart his notes from the beginning of the decade. The prototype basically consisted of a carved block of redwood that included two wheels set in its lower part and a button in the upper part. Your name: XY Position Indicator for a Display System. Its appearance, compact and with a cable sticking out, ended up earning him the nickname “mouse”. It was so comfortable that it prevailed over the rest of the alternatives in the laboratory and the team included it as a standard piece in their investigations. The SRI applied for a patent on the mouse in 1967 and received it in 1970.

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Engelbart and his companions did not stop there. They continued to search for a “companion” for the mouse, another device that the user could operate with his free hand and serve to enter commands and text. After several tests they opted for a device similar to a telephone with five keys. They also conducted tests to further refine the design of the mouse. “We did a lot of experiments to see how many buttons it should have. We tried up to five. We decided on three. That’s all we could fit in. Now the three-button mouse has become standard, except for Macs,” Engelbart himself recalled in 2004, in an interview with Wired.

With all this material and the rest of the inventions developed by his team, the war veteran decided to make a gala setting. One to the beast. In 1968 they organized known as the “mother of all demos”a historic conference held in San Francisco in which Engelbart showed all the functions they had developed over the last few years.

“For 90 minutes, the stunned audience of more than a thousand professionals witnessed many of the hallmarks of modern computing for the first time: live video conferencing, document sharing, word processing, windows, and a strange pointing device that was done jokingly referred to as ‘the mouse’. The elements on the screen were linked to each other by associative links or hypertexts”, explains the Computer History Museum.

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“People were amazed. In one hour, he defined the modern computing age“, commented English to New York Times in 1996. Shortly after that historic achievement, however, the team began to lose its momentum. Some of the staff questioned the drift of the laboratory, DARPA cut its funding and other research centers began to emerge, such as the Xerox one in Palo Alto (PARC). Result? Many of Engelbart’s employees sought new assignments.

With them went the very concept of the mouse. The contraption, with a trackball, ended up being incorporated into the Xerox Alto computer and in 1983 Apple commercialized it with its computer Lisa. After a while –as you remember Washington Post— Steve Jobs’ company was behind nearly half of the 500,000 mice sold. Meanwhile, Engelbart and English saw the idea that the mouse had been a Xerox invention become more widespread.

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Its enormous success – whoever writes this, in the middle of 2022, still uses a mouse – It didn’t bring much benefit either.. Although Engelbart’s name appears on the device’s patent, the copyright remained with the SRI, which ended up paying him around $10,000 for the invention.

Many years later, well into the 21st century, with the Internet, smartphones and laptops expanding, Engelbart recognized, however, that what really surprised him was that we continue to refer to the device by the nickname they gave it in his laboratory.

“I’m surprised the name has stuck,” explained in 2004new years before his death.

Click (of mouse), and end.

Images | SRI International (Wikipedia), michaeldbeavers (Fkickr) and Joho345 (Wikipedia)

Clear things from minute one. When Douglas Engelbart, head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford, wanted to interview…

Clear things from minute one. When Douglas Engelbart, head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford, wanted to interview…

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