In a world of rapidly changing technologies, few have lasted as long is as unaltered a fashion as the mouse. The party line is that the computer mouse was invente d by Douglas Engelbart in 1964 and that it was a one-button wooden device that had two metal wheels. Those used an analog to digital conversion to input a location to a computer. But there’s a lot more to tell. Englebart had read an article in 1945 called “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush. He was in the Philippines working as a radio and radar tech. He’d return home,. Get his degree in electrical engineering, then go to Berkeley and get first his masters and then a PhD. Still in electrical engineering. At the time there were a lot of military grants in computing floating around and a Navy grant saw him work on a computer called CALDIC, short for the California Digital Computer. By the time he completed his PhD he was ready to start a computer storage company but ended up at the Stanford Research Institute in 1957. He published a paper in 1962 called Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. That paper would guide the next decade of his life and help shape nearly everything in computing that came after. Keeping with the theme of “As We May Think” Englebart was all about supplementing what humans could do. The world of computer science had been interested in selecting things on a computer graphically for some time. And Englebart would have a number of devices that he wanted to test in order to find the best possible device for humans to augment their capabilities using a computer. He knew he wanted a graphical system and wanted to be deliberate about every aspect in a very academic fashion. And a key aspect was how people that used the system would interact with it. The keyboard was already a mainstay but he wanted people pointing at things on a screen. While Englebart would invent the mouse, pointing devices certainly weren’t new. Pilots had been using the joystick for some time, but an electrical joystick had been developed at the US Naval Research Laboratory in 1926, with the concept of unmanned aircraft in mind. The Germans would end up building one in 1944 as well. But it was Alan Kotok who brought the joystick to the computer game in the early 1960s to play spacewar on minicomputers. And Ralph Baer brought it into homes in 1967 for an early video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey. Another input device that had come along was the trackball. Ralph Benjamin of the British Royal Navy’s Scientific Service invented the trackball, or ball tracker for radar plotting on the Comprehensive Display System, or CDS. The computers were analog at the time but they could still use the X-Y coordinates from the trackball, which they patented in 1947. Tom Cranston, Fred Longstaff and Kenyon Taylor had seen the CDS trackball and used that as the primary input for DATAR, a radar-driven battlefield visualization computer. The trackball stayed in radar systems into the 60s, when Orbit Instrument Corporation made the X-Y Ball Tracker and then Telefunken turned it upside down to control the TR 440, making an early mouse type of device. The last of the options Englebart decided against was the light pen. Light guns had shown up in the 1930s when engineers realized that a vacuum tube was light-sensitive. You could shoot a beam of light at a tube and it could react. Robert Everett worked with Jay Forrester to develop the light pen, which would allow people to interact with a CRT using light sensing to cause an interrupt on a computer. This would move to the SAGE computer system from there and eek into the IBM mainframes in the 60s. While the technology used to track the coordinates is not even remotely similar, think of this as conceptually similar to the styluses used with tablets and on Wacom tablets today. Paul Morris Fitts had built a model in 1954, now known as Fitts’s Law, to predict the time that’s required to move things on a screen. He defined the target area as a function of the ratio between the distance to the target and the width of the target. If you listen to enough episodes of this podcast, you’ll hear a few names repeatedly. One of those is Claude Shannon. He brought a lot of the math to computing in the 40s and 50s and helped with the Shannon-Hartley Theorum, which defined information transmission rates over a given medium. So these were the main options at Englebart’s disposal to test when he started ARC. But in looking at them, he had another idea. He’d sketched out the mouse in 1961 while sitting in a conference session about computer graphics. Once he had funding he brought in Bill English to build a prototype I n 1963. The first model used two perpendicular wheels attached to potentiometers that tracked movement. It had one button to select things on a screen. It tracked x,y coordinates as had previous devices. NASA funded a study to really dig in and decide which was the best device. He, Bill English, and an extremely talented team, spent two years researching the question, publishing a report in 1965. They really had the blinders off, too. They looked at the DEC Grafacon, joysticks, light pens and even what amounts to a mouse that was knee operated. Two years of what we’d call UX research or User Research today. Few organizations would dedicate that much time to study something. But the result would be patenting the mouse in 1967, an innovation that would last for over 50 years. I’ve heard Engelbart criticized for taking so long to build the oNline System, or NLS, which he showcased at the Mother of All Demos. But it’s worth thinking of his research as academic in nature. It was government funded. And it changed the world. His paper on Computer-Aided Display Controls was seminal. Vietnam caused a lot of those government funded contracts to dry up. From there, Bill English and a number of others from Stanford Research Institute which ARC was a part of, moved to Xerox PARC. English and Jack Hawley iterated and improved the technology of the mouse, ditching the analog to digital converters and over the next few years we’d see some of the most substantial advancements in computing. By 1981, Xerox had shipped the Alto and the Star. But while Xerox would be profitable with their basic research, they would miss something that a candle-clad hippy wouldn’t. In 1979, Xerox let Steve Jobs make three trips to PARC in exchange for the opportunity to buy 100,000 shares of Apple stock pre-IPO. The mouse by then had evolved to a three button mouse that cost $300. It didn’t roll well and had to be used on pretty specific surfaces. Jobs would call Dean Hovey, a co-founder of IDEO and demand they design one that would work on anything including quote “blue jeans.” Oh, and he wanted it to cost $15. And he wanted it to have just one button, which would be an Apple hallmark for the next 30ish years. Hovey-Kelley would move to optical encoder wheels, freeing the tracking ball to move however it needed to and then use injection molded frames. And thus make the mouse affordable. It’s amazing what can happen when you combine all that user research and academic rigor from Englebarts team and engineering advancements documented at Xerox PARC with world-class industrial design. You see this trend played out over and over with the innovations in computing that are built to last. The mouse would ship with the LISA and then with the 1984 Mac. Logitech had shipped a mouse in 1982 for $300. After leaving Xerox, Jack Howley founded a company to sell a mouse for $400 the same year. Microsoft released a mouse for $200 in 1983. But Apple changed the world when Steve Jobs demanded the mouse ship with all Macs. The IBM PC would ;use a mouse and from there it would become ubiquitous in personal computing. Desktops would ship with a mouse. Laptops would have a funny little button that could be used as a mouse when the actual mouse was unavailable. The mouse would ship with extra buttons that could be mapped to additional workflows or macros. And even servers were then outfitted with switches that allowed using a device that switched the keyboard, video, and mouse between them during the rise of large server farms to run the upcoming dot com revolution. Trays would be put into most racks with a single u, or unit of the rack being used to see what you’re working on; especially after Windows or windowing servers started to ship. As various technologies matured, other innovations came along to input devices. The mouse would go optical in 1980 and ship with early Xerox Star computers but what we think of as an optical mouse wouldn’t really ship until 1999 when Microsoft released the IntelliMouse. Some of that tech came to them via Hewlett-Packard through the HP acquisition of DEC and some of those same Digital Research Institute engineers had been brought in from the original mainstreamer of the mouse, PARC when Bob Taylor started DRI. The LED sensor on the muse stuck around. And thus ended the era of the mouse pad, once a hallmark of many a marketing give-away. Finger tracking devices came along in 1969 but were far too expensive to produce at the time. As capacitive sensitive pads, or trackpads came down in price and the technology matured those began to replace the previous mouse-types of devices. The 1982 Apollo computers were the first to ship with a touchpad but it wasn’t until Synaptics launched the TouchPad in 1992 that they began to become common, showing up in 1995 on Apple laptops and then becoming ubiquitous over the coming years. In fact, the IBM Thinkpad and many others shipped laptops with little red nubs in the keyboard for people that didn’t want to use the TouchPad for awhile as well. Some advancements in the mouse didn’t work out. Apple released the hockey puck shaped mouse in 1998, when they released the iMac. It was USB, which replaced the ADB interface. USB lasted. The shape of the mouse didn’t. Apple would go to the monolithic surface mouse in 2000, go wireless in 2003 and then release the Mighty Mouse in 2005. The Mighty Mouse would have a capacitive touch sensor and since people wanted to hear a click would produce that with a little speaker. This also signified the beginning of bluetooth as a means of connecting a mouse. Laptops began to replace desktops for many, and so the mouse itself isn’t as dominant today. And with mobile and tablet computing, resistive touchscreens rose to replace many uses for the mouse. But even today, when I edit these podcasts, I often switch over to a mouse simply because other means of dragging around timelines simply aren’t as graceful. And using a pen, as Englebart’s research from the 60s indicated, simply gets fatiguing. Whether it’s always obvious, we have an underlying story we’re often trying to tell with each of these episodes. We obviously love unbridled innovation and a relentless drive towards a technologically utopian multiverse. But taking a step back during that process and researching what people want means less work and faster adoption. Doug Englebart was a lot of things but one net-new point we’d like to make is that he was possibly the most innovative in harnessing user research to make sure that his innovations would last for decades to come. Today, we’d love to research every button and heat map and track eyeballs. But remembering, as he did, that our job is to augment human intellect, is best done when we make our advances useful, helps to keep us and the forks that occur in technology from us, from having to backtrack decades of work in order to take the next jump forward. We believe in the reach of your innovations. So next time you’re working on a project. Save yourself time, save your code a little cyclomatic complexity, , and save users frustration from having to relearn a whole new thing. And research what you’re going to do first. Because you never know. Something you engineer might end up being touched by nearly every human on the planet the way the mouse has. Thank you Englebart. And thank you to NASA and Bob Roberts from ARPA for funding such important research. And thank you to Xerox PARC, for carrying the torch. And to Steve Jobs for making the mouse accessible to every day humans. As with many an advance in computing, there are a lot of people that deserve a little bit of the credit. And thank you listeners, for joining us for another episode of the history of computing podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Now stop consuming content and go change the world.
Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to cover a special moment in time. Picture this if you will. It’s 1968. A collection of some 1,000 of the finest minds in computing is sitting in the audience of the San Francisco Civic Center. They’re at a joint conference of the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fall Join Computer Conference in San Francisco. They’re waiting to see the a session called A research center for augmenting human intellect. Many had read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” Atlantic article in 1946 that signified the turning point that inspired so many achievements over the previous 20 years. Many had witnessed the evolution from the mainframe to the transistorized computer to timesharing systems. The presenter for this session would be Douglas Carl Engelbart. ARPA had strongly recommended he come to finally make a public appearance. Director Bob Taylor in fact was somewhat adamant about it. The talk was six years in the making and ARPA and NASA were ready to see what they had been investing in. ARPA had funded his Augmentation Research Center Lab in SRI, or the Stanford Research Institute. The grad instigator J.C.R. Licklider had started the funding when ARPA was still called DARPA in 1963 based on a paper Engelbart published in 1962. But it had really been going since Engelbart got married in 1950 and realized computers could be used to improve human capabilities, to harness the collective intellect, to facilitate truly interactive computing and to ultimately make the world a better place. Englebart was 25. He’d been from Oregon where he got his Bachelors in 48 after serving in World War II as a radar tech. He then come to Berkely in 53 for is Masters, sating through 1955 to get his PhD. He ended up at Stanford’s SRI. There, he hired people like Don Andrews, Bill Paxton, Bill English, and Jeff Rulifson. And today Engelbart was ready to show the world what his team had been working on. The computer was called the oNLine System, or NLS. Bill English would direct things onsite. Because check this out, not all presenters were onsite on that day in 1968. Instead, some were at ARC in Menlo Park, 30 miles away. To be able to communicate onsite they used two 1200 baud modems connecting over a leased line to their office. But they would also use two microwave links. And that was for something crazy: video. The lights went dark. The OnLine Computer was projected onto a 22 foot high screen using an Eidophor video projector. Bill English would flip the screen up as the lights dimmed. The audience was expecting a tall, thin man to come out to present. Instead, they saw Doug Englebart on the screen in front of them. The one behind the camera, filming Engelbart, was Stewart Russel Brand, the infamous editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. It seems Englebart was involved in more than just computers. But people destined to change the world have always travelled in the same circles I supposed. Englebart’s face came up on the screen, streaming in from all those miles away. And the screen they would switch back and forth to. That was the Online System, or NLS for short. The camera would come in from above Englebart’s back and the video would be transposed with the text being entered on the screen. This was already crazy. But when you could see where he was typing, there was something… well, extra. He was using a pointing device in his right hand. This was the first demo of a computer mouse Which he had applied for a patent for in 1967. He called it that because it had a tail which was the cabe that connected the wooden contraption to the computer. Light pens had been used up to this point, but it was the first demonstration of a mouse and the team had actually considered mounting it under the desk and using a knee to move the pointer.But they decided that would just be too big a gap for normal people to imagine and that the mouse would be simpler. Engelbart also used a device we might think of more like a macro pad today. It was modeled after piano keys. We’d later move this type of functionality onto the keyboard using various keystrokes, F keys, and a keyboard and in the case of Apple, command keys. He then opened a document on his screen. Now, people didn’t do a lot of document editing in 1968. Really, computers were pretty much used for math at that point. At least, until that day. That document he opened. He used hyperlinks to access content. That was the first real demo of clickable hypertext. He also copied text in the document. And one of the most amazing aspects of the presentation was that you kinda’ felt like he was only giving you a small peak into what he had. You see, before the demo, they thought he was crazy. Many were probably only there to see a colossal failure of a demo. But instead they saw pure magic. Inspiration. Innovation. They saw text highlighted. They saw windows on screens that could be resized. They saw the power of computer networking. Video conferencing. A stoic Engelbart was clearly pleased with his creation. Bill Paxton and Jeff Rulifson were on the other side, helping with some of the text work. His style worked well with the audience, and of course, it’s easy to win over an audience when they have just been wowed by your tech. But more than that, his inspiration was so inspiring that you could feel it just watching the videos. All these decades later. can watching those videos. Engelbart and the team would receive a standing ovation. And to show it wasn’t smoke and mirrors, ARC let people actually touch the systems and Engelbart took questions. Many people involved would later look back as though it was an unfinished work. And it was. Andy van Dam would later say Everybody was blown away and thought it was absolutely fantastic and nothing else happened. There was almost no further impact. People thought it was too far out and they were still working on their physical teletypes, hadn't even migrated to glass teletypes yet. But that’s not really fair or telling the whole story. In 1969 we got the Mansfield Amendment - which slashed the military funding pure scientific research. After that, the budget was cut and the team began to disperse, as was happening with a lot of the government-backed research centers. Xerox was lucky enough to hire Bob Taylor, and many others immigrated to Xerox PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, was able to take the concept and actually ship a device in 1973, although not as mass marketable yet as later devices would be. Xerox would ship the Alto in 1973. The Alto would be the machine that inspired the Mac and therefore Windows - so his ideas live on today. His own team got spun out of Stanford and sold, becoming Tymshare and then McDonnel Douglas. He continued to have more ideas but his concepts were rarely implemented at McDonnel Douglas so he finally left in 1986, starting the Bootstrapp Alliance, which he founded with his daughter. But he succeeded. He wanted to improve the plight of man and he did. Hypertext and movable screens directly influenced a young Alan Kay who was in the audience and was inspired to write Smalltalk. The Alto at Xerox also inspired Andy van Dam, who built the FRESS hypertext system based on many of the concepts from the talk as well. It also did multiple windows, version control on documents, intradocument hypertext linking, and more. But, it was hard to use. Users needed to know complex commands just to get into the GUI screens. He was also still really into minicomputers and timesharing, and kinda’ missed that the microcomputer revolution was about to hit hard. The hardware hacker movement that was going on all over the country, but most concentrated in the Bay Area, was about to start the long process of putting a computer, and now mobile device, in every home in the world. WIth smaller and smaller and faster chips, the era of the microcomputer would transition into the era of the client and server. And that was the research we were transitioning to as we moved into the 80s. Charles Irby was a presentter as well, being a designer of NLS. He would go on to lead the user interface design work on the Xerox star before founding a company then moving on to VP of development for General Magic, a senior leader at SGI and then the leader of the engineering team that developed the Nintendo 64. Bob Sproull was in the audience watching all this and would go on to help design the Xerox Alto, the first laser printer, and write the Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics before becoming a professor at Conegie Mellon and then ending up helping create Sun Microsystems Laboratories, becoming the director and helping design asuynchronous processors. Butler Lampson was also there, a found of Xerox PARC, where the Alto was built and co-creator of Ethernet. Bill Paxton (not the actor) would join him at PARC and later go on to be an early founder of Adobe. In 2000, Engelbart would receive the National Medal of Technology for his work. He also He got the Turing Award in 1997, the Locelace Medal in 2001. He would never lose his belief in the collective intelligence. He wrote Boosting Our Collective IQ in 1995 and it has Englebart passed away in 2013. He will forever be known as the inventor of the mouse. But he gave us more. He wanted to augment the capabilities of humans, allowing us to do more, rather than replace us with machines. This was in contrast to SAIL and the MIT AI Lab where they were just doing research for the sake of research. The video of his talk is on YouTube, so click on the links in the show notes if you’d like to access it and learn more about such a great innovator. He may not have brought a mass produced system to market, but as with Vanevar Bush’s article 20 years before, the research done is a turning point in history; a considerable milestone on the path to the gleaming world we now live in today. The NLS teaches us that while you might not achieve commercial success with years of research, if you are truly innovative, you might just change the world. Sometimes the two simply aren’t mutually exclusive. And when you’re working on a government grant, they really don’t have to be. So until next time, dare to be bold. Dare to change the world, and thank you for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Have a great day! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY
Author Albert Cory joins the podcast in this episode to talk about his new book, Inventing the Future. Inventing the Future was a breath of fresh air from an inspirational time and person. Other books have told the story of how the big names in computing were able to commercialize many of the innovations that came out of Xerox PARC. But Inventing the Future adds a really personal layer that ties in the culture of the day (music, food, geography, and even interpersonal relationships) to what was happening in computing - that within a couple of decades would wildly change how we live our lives.
We’re lucky he made the time to discuss his take on a big evolution in modern technology through the lens of historical fiction. I would absolutely recommend the book to academics and geeks and just anyone looking to expand their minds. And we look forward to having him on again!