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.

My dream of a single power plug on World Standards Day

World Standards Day is celebrated internationally each year on 14 October.

The idea of this day is to remind people of the importance of standards, and to honour the efforts of all those involved in the development and maintenance of various standards within the different standards organisations such as the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Development of standards is a detailed, precise and often thankless job, that is usually done on a voluntary basis. And unless you run into a situation where your life is complicated as a result of a lack of standardisation, you may very likely not even be aware of the important roles standards and interoperability play in our daily lives.

The theme of this year’s World Standards Day is “Less waste, better results – Standards increase efficiency.” As explained by the World Standards Cooperation (WSC), international standards help to harmonize manufacturing and other processes across the globe, which allow components etc from different manufacturers to ‘fit together like pieces in a puzzle’. Standards support interoperability and compatibility and facilitate market access to new products. And all this do indeed contribute to a more efficient and less wasteful world.

Non-standardised power supplies must be one of the most frustrating headaches facing anyone endeavouring to travel internationally.
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I guess as someone who has travelled to a few countries, and who has lived in more than one country, I personally find one of the most frustrating examples of non-standardisation being the absurd range of different electrical plug and socket standards in different countries. Having to replace plugs, buy various country-specific adapters, or replace power cables, is an excellent example where a lack of standards leads to less efficiency and more waste. How this disparity came about I have no idea. And why, in this day and age, have things not progressed to a single standard (at least among countries working on a similar voltage and current rating) makes even less sense. Surely it cannot be that difficult – just go for the most pervasive standard, or better still, choose the one that actually works best, and go with that?

So, like Martin Luther King of old, I also have a dream. It is not a very big dream, but it is a dream that can, in its own small way, change the world. On this World Standards Day my dream is to travel the world with a single, universal power plug that fits the sockets of all countries across the globe. Is that too much to ask? 🙂