Happy Birthday, Mr Mouse

The computer mouse was fifty years old in December, 2018.  For the mouse, it has not been a jolly good ride. Indeed, it has been fifty years of hard labour, especially in the hands of end users, both young and old, experts and learners. How did the mouse come into existence? Who invented it? Where? Jimi David traces the history of the mouse in this report. The computer mouse made its debut onDecember 9, 1968.

The hi-tech visionary Dr. Douglas Engelbert, first used one to demonstrate novel ways of working with computers. The first mouse that Dr. Engelbert used in the demo at the Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) was made of wood and had one button. According to research, much of the technology shown off in that particular demo inspired the creation of the hardware and software which is now widely used. “It was a good show, but it was all real,”Dr. Jeff Rulifson, who is now the director of Sun’s VLSI research group, said. He was the architect and lead programmer for the software shown off at the FJCC. The mouse, which was built by Bill English, helped Dr Engelbert demonstrate how text files could be clipped, copied and pasted as well as showing ways of using computer networks to collaborate on projects or co-edit documents. Report show that Dr. Rulifson joined the group that Dr. Engelbert assembled at the Stanford Research Institute in California after meeting the charismatic engineer while attending the FJCC in 1965. “ I met Doug and got thoroughly enchanted, ”Dr Rulifson. “I really understood what he was after. I was blown away by the ideas.”

What pushed Dr. Engelbert was the need to make the computers act as helpers that augmented human intelligence and enabled users to operate far more efficiently and productively than they would without such tools. The 1968 demonstration showed off the computer system, called NLS, developed to put these ideas into practical for. Most of this, said Dr. Rulifson, had to be invented by the team at SRI. “There were nits and pieces all around,” he said. “There was no completely unique set of ideas but we pulled it all together.” Although the mouse was central to what NLS could do, there was more to what Dr. Engelbert wanted to achieve. “I think people get fixated on the mouse, “he said. “It’s a symbol they can hang on to but the idea behind it was this idea of putting text into NLS and giving it an entirely new flexibility. We had full text editing and hyperlinks the mass of what we use today,” said Dr. Rulifson. However, report indicate that in the 1968 demo Dr. Rulifson was at the SRI Lab and appeared on screen in Brooks Hall auditorium while helping Dr. Engelbert to show how co-workers could use NLS to collaborate. The demo was so far ahead of other uses of computers at the time and the technology on show was so powerfully convincing that one attendee later likened Dr Engelbert’s efforts to “dealing lightning with both hands”.

 Not only did NLs impress the audience at the FJCC but it also became the first programme scheduled to be used across the fledgling Arpanet that was just being built. NLS is mentioned in the first RFC – the technical documents that describe the workings of what we know today as the internet. In 1969 SRI, along with ULCA, was one of the two ends of the first link in the network that became Arpanet – and ultimately the internet. So, what you have as the computer mouse today actually started as a cardboard. But only now is Doug Engelbert’s vision starting to be realized, said Dr. Rulifson, and the world has yet to catch up with the ideas first aired in 1968. Half the vision has come along,” said Dr Rulifson. “We could see the day when these things would be small enough to carry about”. Not to worry Dr. Engelbert, that day is here! Happy birthday, Mr Mouse.

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