There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty Six


Douglas Engelbart (1925 – 2013)

The computer mouse – now there’s, a handy little gadget which when plugged into the laptop allows the user, particularly one with poor manual dexterity and/or fingers like tree trunks, to navigate around the screen with ease. The man who developed this simple but ingenious gadget is the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, American scientist Douglas Engelbart.

Engelbart, then a Director at the Stanford Research Institute, was working on a project aimed at augmenting the human intellect, was pioneering the use of graphical user interface and was looking for a way to enable the user to more easily interact with the information being displayed on the screen. The first prototype of what we would call today a mouse was developed in 1964. It had a cord at the front – it was later moved to the rear of the device to get it out of the way – and was a simple mechanical device with two perpendicularly mounted discs on the bottom. By tilting the or rocking the mouse you could draw perfectly straight vertical and horizontal lines on the screen.

On behalf of the Research Institute Engelbart applied for a patent for what was a wooden shell with two metal wheels or in the language of the patent application “an X-Y position indicator for a display system. The patent was granted in 1970 and the gadget went by the name of a mouse because of its relatively small body and long tail, the cord coming out of the back. Interestingly, Engelbart was not able to apply for patents for his early versions of windows and GUI because at the time software was not thought to be capable of being patented.


Interestingly, in 1967 Engelbart experimented with a mouse that was controlled by the foot on the basis that the knee offered better control at slight movements in all directions and in tests it outperformed hand-controlled mice by a small margin. But the knee-trembler was dropped and the prototype of the advanced computer technologies which Engelbart and his team demonstrated on December 9th 1968 featured a nand-controlled mouse. Some of the other technologies on display included video-conferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing, dunamic file linking, bootstrapping and a real-time editor – all the bi8ts and pieces within a PC we take for granted.

Perhaps because he was an academic and the mouse was viewed as just an adjunct to the greater project of grappling with assisting the human intellect, the commercial possibilities offered by the mouse were cheerfully ignored. The patent, in fact, seemed to pass through a couple of hands until it came to the attention of one Steve Jobs – yes, him. Never one to overlook a gift horse in the mouth Jobs set about streamlining the device and marketing it as an aid to facilitate the use of laptop devices.

When accused of stealing and ripping off the idea Jobs is supposed to have echoed Picasso’s famous quote, “Good artists copy, great artists steal” and told a journalist that the previous holders of the patent had no clue of the value of the patent at the time. Jobs went on to make his billions but the rewards that should have come Engelbart’s way eluded him, qualifying him for elevation to our role of honour. At least when the mouse took off Engelbart’s contribution was recognised, if not financially.

Douglas, for your development of the computer mouse for which you received not a bean, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link