Douglas Engelbart and the evolution of the computer mouse

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.

Transistors – the electronic engineer’s dream

On this day back in 1947, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen had a big day – they did the first live demonstration of a transistor, in a presentation to their superiors at Bell Laboratories.

In the demo, a microphone and headphones were connected to a transistor, and when they spoke over the device, there was ‘no noticeable change in quality’ (according to Brattain’s notes). They finished building their demonstration device just a few short days earlier, on 16 December 1947, so I am sure the excitement must have been quite high on the day of the demo to the bosses.

The name ‘transistor’, by the way, was chosen because of the trans-resistance properties of the component.

Compact, rugged little transistors, replacing the bulky and fragile vacuum tubes of old.(© All Rights Reserved)
Compact, rugged little transistors, replacing the bulky and fragile vacuum tubes of old.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The transistor was basically a much smaller and more usable replacement for the bulky vacuum tubes used before, and as such opened up many new possibilities in electronic component development. This lead to it being referred to as ‘the electronic engineer’s dream’.

At least their efforts didn’t go unnoticed – for their invention, Brattain and Bardeen shared the 1956 Nobel Price for Physics.

Celebrating IBM PC Day

This day marks the release, 31 years ago in 1981, of the very first IBM Personal Computer (PC) model 5150.

The original IBM PC. (R de Rijcke, Wikimedia Commons)

Developed in less than a year, using existing off-the-shelf components, it proved a runaway success in the small business market, and launched the era of the personal computer. The IBM PC used an operating system developed by Microsoft, helping to establish Microsoft’s dominance in the in the PC market.

Specifications of the original IBM PC included an Intel 8080 processor with a processing speed of 4.77 MHz, 16-64K memory and data storage consisting of 5.25″ floppy drives, cassette tape and (later on) a hard disk.

Even though the term “personal computer” wasn’t first coined by IBM (it was used as early as 1972 in reference to the Xerox PARC Alto), the success and prevalence of the IBM product resulted in the term PC referring specifically to computers and components compatible to the IBM PC. This led to peripherals and components being advertised as ‘IBM format’, further cementing IBM as the industry standard.

The IBM Blue Gene/P system (2008), capable of 14 trillion individual calculations per second. Yep, it’s a bit faster than the IBM PC model 5150!
(© All Rights Reserved)

As a result of it’s amazing longevity (many IBM PCs have remained in use well into the 21st century), and the fact that it represents the first true personal computer, the original IBM PC have become popular among collectors of vintage PCs.

So, if you happen to still have an old model 5150 sitting in a cupboard somewhere, treasure it – depending on it’s condition it can be worth almost $5000, and unlike just about all other electronic equipment in your house, it’s value may actually increase!