The Engelbart Mouse sounds like a rodent species named after a zoologist. But it’s actually named after the inventor of one of the most widespread computer accessories: the mouse.

What is the Engelbart Mouse?

Douglas Engelbart was an American inventor who started working on the concept back in 1963 together with his partner William English. The concept of computer work stations as a tool for solving problems was still a relatively new concept at the time. In order to optimize the work process, users needed a device to move a cursor around the screen.

Engelbart and English developed the first prototype of their device in 1964. It consisted of two metal discs encased in a wooden shell with a button on top. It enabled the user to move the cursor around the computer screen and draw both vertical and horizontal lines.

The original device was described as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system”, which isn’t nearly as catchy as a ”mouse”.

The nickname came about because the device had to be connected to the computer via a chord. The chord originally stuck out the front of the device but was later moved to the back to make it more practical. Since it resembled a mouse, the device was nicknamed as such.

Features and Benefits of the Engelbart Mouse

There were already a few devices available to move cursors around, including joysticks and light pens. Engelbart, however, wanted to find out which of these devices was the most efficient one to get the job done.

So in 1966, he contacted NASA to organize a test to find out. They created a series of tasks and asked volunteers to perform them using the different devices, including the mouse. The tasks were timed, and the findings were clear: the mouse outperformed the other devices by far. One year later, Engelbart applied for a patent but didn’t get it until 1970 because it relied on computer software — and patents weren’t granted for software at the time.

Engelbart and English continued to develop their workstations, however, and that same year they produced the first complete workstation: screen, mouse, and keyboard. It was at this time the casing was made out of plastic, and the chord was moved back to the front of the mouse.

In 1968, the world finally got to see the mouse, along with the rest of the work station in what became known as The Mother of All Demos. Here, Engelbart showcased not only the mouse, but also word processing, emails, teleconferencing, and hypermedia.

The Legacy of the Engelbart Mouse

Interestingly, Engelbart never received a dime for his invention. He received the patent while working for SRI, who licensed it to Apple for $40,000. Although it’s a shame, Englebert already had over 45 patents to his name by the time the mouse was ready.

Engelbart’s invention is still used today, although the cordless mouse was already on the market in 1984. And although Apple has since introduced the tracking pad to laptop users, the mouse is still seen anywhere people are solving problems on workstations. It’s unlikely that it will disappear from our offices and homes anytime soon.

Image courtesy of scihi.org.

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