Who Invented the Computer Mouse?

Computer Mouse
Computer Mouse. Jonathan Kitchen | Getty Images

It was technology visionary and inventor Douglas Engelbart (January 30, 1925 – July 2, 2013) who revolutionized the way computers worked, turning it from a piece of specialized machinery that only a trained scientist could use to a user-friendly tool that almost anyone can work with. During his lifetime, he invented or contributed to several interactive and user-friendly devices such as the computer mouse, Windows operating system, computer video teleconferencing, hypermedia, groupware, email, the Internet and much more.

Making Computing Less Cumbersome

Most of all, though, he was known for inventing the computer mouse. Engelbart conceived of the rudimentary mouse while attending a conference on computer graphics, where he started thinking about how to improve interactive computing. In the early days of computing, users typed codes and commands to make things happen on monitors. Engelbart thought an easier way was to link the computer’s cursor to a device with two wheels—one horizontal and one vertical. Moving the device on a horizontal surface would allow the user to position the cursor on the screen.

Engelbart’s collaborator on the mouse project Bill English built a prototype—a hand-held device carved out of wood, with a button on the top. In 1967, Engelbart’s company SRI filed for the patent on the mouse, although the paperwork identified it a little differently as "x,y position indicator for a display system." The patent was awarded in 1970.

Computer Mice Hits the Market

Before long, computers designed to work with a mouse were released. Among the first was the Xerox Alto, which went on sale in 1973. A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich liked the concept as well and built their own computer system with a mouse called the Lilith computer, sold from 1978 to 1980. Perhaps thinking they were on to something, Xerox soon followed up with the Xerox 8010, which featured a mouse, ethernet networking and e-mail among various innovative technologies that have since become standard.   

But it wasn't until 1983 that the mouse started to go mainstream. It was that year that Microsoft updated the MS-DOS program Microsoft Word to make it mouse-compatible and developed the first PC-compatible mouse. Computer manufacturers such as Apple, Atari and Commodore would all follow suit by debuting mouse compatible systems as well.  

Tracking Ball and Other Advancements

Like other present forms of computer technology, the mouse has evolved significantly. In 1972, English developed the “track ball mouse” that allowed users to control the cursor by rotating a ball from a fixed position. One interesting enhancement is technology that enables wireless devices, a fact that makes Engelbart's recollection of an early prototype almost quaint.

"We turned it around so the tail came out the top. We started with it going the other direction, but the cord got tangled when you moved your arm," he said. 

For an inventor who grew up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon and had hoped his achievements would add to the collective intelligence of the world, the mouse has come a long way. "It would be wonderful,” he said, “if I can inspire others, who are struggling to realize their dreams, to say 'if this country kid could do it, let me keep slogging away.'"