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We’re back to computers today, as we celebrate the birthday of Douglas Engelbart (born 30 Jan 1925), the American electrical engineer and human-computer interface specialist who developed the first practically useable prototype of the computer mouse.

The computer mouse has become such a ubiquitous part of a home computer setup that its quite difficult to think back to the time when computers didn’t come stock standard with a mouse. Of course early command-line computers had no real need for a mouse, given that they didn’t have a graphical user interface, and there was no need for a device to select different objects on the screen.

The classic Apple mouse - a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.(© All Rights Reserved)

The classic Apple mouse – a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Engelbart’s computer interfacing device, that he developed with his colleague Bill English at the Stanford Research Institute, basically consisted of a handheld ‘box’ with two wheels protruding at the bottom, pointed perpendicular to each other so that, when the device was moved along a flat surface, the rotation of the wheels translated into motion along the horisontal and vertical axes on the screen. The device became referred to as a mouse because of its size and because the electric cable running out behind the device resembled a mouse’s tail.

Even though Engelbart patented his computer mouse (on Nov 17, 1970), this was a case where the invention was so far ahead of its time that the patent ran out before the device found widespread application in personal computers. Hence he never received any royalties for his groundbreaking invention.

The mouse was actually only one of several different devices that Engelbart experimented with to enable humans to easier interact with computers, including a joystick-type device, as well as head-mounted devices attached to the chin or nose. Personally I am quite relieved that the hand-held mouse won out – imagine if we all sat around staring at our computer screens with pointing devices attached to our noses. Then again, we may not have thought it funny – if you think how absurd ear-mounted bluetooth mobile phone headsets look (a personal pet-hate of mine!), perhaps a nose-mounted computer pointer wouldn’t have been that odd…

Of course by today the computer mouse has become a complex, highly sophisticated device, with variants ranging from multi-functional gaming mice that look like something out of a science fiction fantasy, to Apple’s classic smooth and simple design masterpieces.

And all this thanks to Doug Engelbart’s visionary work more than 40 years ago.

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