Who really invented the mouse? Many people think that Xerox came up with the original device, before the idea was “stolen” by Steve Jobs and Apple.
That is only part of the story.
In actual fact, the modern mouse as we know it was invented by Douglas Engelbart, a brilliant computer scientist who lived between 1925 and 2013. It was then further developed by Xerox, Apple and Microsoft.
Below is a short history of the modern computer mouse, enjoy!
Douglas Engelbart – The True Inventor of the Mouse
It is 1950 and Douglas Engelbart, a young PhD student from UC Berkeley, is having a quarter-life crisis. At 25, he realizes that he has no aspirations in life other “than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after”.
Therefore, instead of settling for a mundane job with a comfortable paycheck, he comes up with a vision to make the world a better place through computer technology.
And the rest is history.
Birthplace of the Mouse – The Augmentation Research Center (ARC)
In 1960, after going through various endeavours which were not clearly aligned with his vision, a determined Engelbart set up the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a research facility based in Stanford University.
This was the turning point for him.
Over here, he conceived some of the most cutting-edge computer technology of his time, such as object-based programming and computer networking.
And amongst these inventions, was the mouse.
In 1964, Engelbart came up with the idea of the computer mouse while attending a computer graphics conference. He was mulling about how to move the cursor on the computer screen. William “Bill” English, his colleague at Stanford, helped to build the first prototype of the mouse.
The prototype consisted of 2 wheels within a bulky pine box, with just one red button on the top corner of the box. Click here to see how the original mouse looked like.
Who Came Up with The Term “Mouse”?
The origin of the term “mouse” is unknown, but according to an interview with Engelbart, no one could remember and it “just looked like a mouse with a tail, and we all called it that in the lab.”
A small part of science history which will never truly be known. 🙂
The Mother of All Demos – The Mouse is Introduced To The World
The date is 9th of December, 1968. 18 years after his quarter-life crisis, Engelbart is about to fulfil his vision of making the world a better place.
At the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Engelbart demonstrated the never-before-seen “mouse” technology to an awestruck audience.
This legendary presentation is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”.
The Telefunken – A German Version of The Mouse
Independently, a German company had also came up with a mouse device. But instead of using two perpendicular wheels to navigate, it used a rolling-ball system which was a more efficient design than the two-wheel system.
The Xerox Mouse – Where Two Wheels Were Replaced By a Ball
This German design might have influenced English, Engelbart’s colleague who as mentioned earlier built the first mouse prototype. He went to work at Xerox in 1971, where he developed a mouse that similarly utilized a rolling-ball system. This mouse was used with early Xerox PCs: the Xerox ALTO and the Xerox 8010 STAR. However, the Xerox mouse was bulky and extremely expensive at $300 apiece – an exorbitant figure if you take into account inflation.
The (in)famous Xerox Heist by Apple
It was during this period that one of the most famous heists in computer history took place.
Apple had an agreement with the Xerox venture capital division for Xerox to purchase 100,000 pre-IPO Apple shares. In exchange, PARC (Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated), the research wing of Xerox, would need to unveil its highly-classified computer technology to Apple.
Therefore, in the winter of 1979, an Apple team led by a young Steve Jobs headed to Xerox PARC.
Steve Jobs, along with the Apple team, was completely blown away by the technology that Xerox possessed. These included network computing, object-based programming, a revolutionary Graphical User Interface (GUI), and of course, the mouse.
Steve Jobs is famously known for exclaiming to the Xerox staff, “you’re sitting on a gold mine. I can’t believe Xerox is not taking advantage of this!”
The APPLE LISA Mouse – Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal
Back at Apple, the mouse was further developed for use with the Apple LISA computer. Steve Jobs also bought the mouse patent from SRI (where the mouse had been invented by Engelbart) for a steal of around USD 40,000.
However, instead of merely “copying” the mouse technology, Steve Jobs “stole” it and made it much better.
He wanted the mouse to go from a $300 bulky and expensive device to a small $30 device which could endure everyday use. The task was given to a young start-up formed by Stanford graduates.
Eventually, this formidable goal was achieved, and the mouse that was developed was the earliest mouse that most closely resembled the modern mouse we use today.
The Windows 1.0 Mouse – Microsoft “Steals” from Apple
There was a problem with the Apple mouse though – it only had one button (Engelbart had proposed up to ten buttons). Microsoft came up with a mouse that had two buttons, a design that we are more familiar with, and a design that was more efficient than the Apple one-button mouse.
In addition, Microsoft also copied the GUI design from Apple LISA and both the GUI and two-button mouse was used with Windows 1.0.
This enraged Steve Jobs, whom for years after accused Microsoft of ripping off their idea. It was the start of bitter animosity between the two giants of technology.
In summary, the invention of the original mouse can be attributed to Douglas Engelbart, who was the undisputed first person to conceive the idea. However, having a brilliant idea is only part of the equation. Good execution is equally important in creating a great product. Xerox, Apple and Microsoft completed this part of the equation. Xerox created the first mouse that could be used for commercial purposes. Apple “stole” the idea and developed a mouse that was much more efficient by dramatically reducing its size and cost. Microsoft further improved the mouse by designing a two-button system.
As Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. And this was especially true in the development of the mouse.