Doug Engelbart: Inventor of the computer mouse


Douglas Engelbart was the inventor of the mouse, the simple tool that dramatically changed the way in which humans interact with their computers. Since the first public demonstration of the mouse in 1968 over a billion have been sold worldwide. Although now slowly being overtaken by touchpads and touch-sensitive screens, the mouse and the concepts behind it, remain an important feature of all modern computers.

Engelbart was born in 1925 in Portland, Oregon, one of three children born to Carl Engelbart, a radio repairman, and his wife Gladys. He studied at Oregon State University, from which he graduated in 1948, following wartime military service, and followed this seven years later with a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

He joined the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1957 and founded the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), part of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), leading a team responsible for creating ideas and making those ideas into reality. It was while driving to work one day that he experienced a vision of the future of computing, as he later described it: "...people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, 'flying around' in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped. Then they would communicate and communally organise their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility."

Engelbart's seminal paper of 1962, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, describes a future personal computer with an example. "Let us consider an augmented architect at work. He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his 'clerk') with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices."

None of the computer hardware or software to create this predicted world of work yet existed. The co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, said of that visionary document and Engelbart's developments that followed it, "What he did was absolutely brilliant and so far ahead of its time back then. He saw where the future was going to go."

As part of this vision of better interaction between man and machine, Engelbart came up with the idea of a small box which could move a cursor around on a screen through corresponding movements on a desk. Working in 1964 with his colleague, William English, he made a prototype from wood and metal wheels, attached to the computer with a cable, the "tail" that led to the device being described as the "mouse".

In December 1968 Engelbart demonstrated during an hour-long session several technologies that would define computing in the latter part of the 20th century. These included the mouse, a visual display, video conferencing and the use of the first two computers on ARPAnet, the predecessor of today's internet. The presentation has since gone down in the annals of computer history as the "mother of all demos".

Engelbart was granted a patent for the mouse in 1970 but it did not enter into mainstream use until more than a decade later. Designers from Apple had visited the Xerox PARC research centre in the late 1970s looking for ideas for two forthcoming computers known as the Lisa and the Macintosh. It was there that they encountered the mouse for the first time and decided to adopt it for commercial use.

Following the visit, Steve Jobs, Apple's then chief executive, told the industrial designer Dean Hovey, "What you guys need to do, what we need to do together, is build a mouse." Hovey, who had not previously heard of a mouse, recalled, "When I walked out that door, I was ready to change the world." Their first prototype was "hacked together" in a weekend, using a butter dish and the ball from a roll-on deodorant.

Although Apple's Lisa computer was not a success, the Macintosh, launched in 1984, established graphical computers as the new standard. Since then mice have been created in many shapes, sizes and colours, but all rely on the basic principles enshrined in Engelbart's invention from the 1960s.

In 1997 Engelbart won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize for his invention. Three years later he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Clinton. Latterly Engelbart had led a think tank, the Bootstrap Alliance, whose aims are to improve individual human intelligence through improving humanity's collective intelligence.

Dr Curtis R Carlson, the President of SRI, said, "Doug was a giant who made the world a much better place and who deeply touched those of us who knew him... He brought tremendous value to society. We will miss his genius, warmth and charm. Doug's legacy is immense – anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him."

Douglas Carl Engelbart, computer scientist and inventor: born Portland, Oregon 30 January 1925; married 1951 Ballard Fish (died 1997; one son, three daughters), 2008 Karen O'Leary; died Atherton, California 2 July 2013.

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