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David A. Wimsett
Providing Technological Solutions

David's interest in technology extends back to his teen years with science fairs and amateur radio. He is fascinated with hardware, but his real interest is how people use technology. David's goal in providing technological solutions has always been to listen to the end users.


BIRTH OF THE MOUSE - Part 1

The Graphic User Interface, commonly called the GUI, has revolutionized the way people and computers communicate. It is hard to think of computers without mice, icons, menus, and hyperlinks. Many people believe the first GUI computer was the Apple Macintosh that was released with great fanfare in 1984. But, in truth, the origins of the mouse and the GUI precede the Macintosh by several decades.

The father of the mouse and the Graphic User Interface is an electrical engineer named Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart. As a RADAR technician in the second World War, he saw how images on the CRT screen showed the speed and direction of approaching aircraft and wondered if computer data could also be displayed that way.

In 1945, Dr. Engelbart read an article in The Atlantic Monthly by Dr. Vannevar Bush, an early pioneer in calculating and storing data. Dr. Bush had created an analog computer in 1931 that used spinning wheels and gears to solve differential equations. In the article, entitled “As We May Think”, Dr. Bush described a machine he called the Memex, for Memory Extender, that could store and retrieve information on microfilm and allow that data to be cross indexed and shared.

After the war, Dr. Engelbart finished his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and began research into how computers could be made more accessible to people. In 1957 he joined California's Stanford Research Institute (SRI). By 1963, he had his own computer laboratory.

He and his team worked for five years before presenting their results on the 9th of December, 1968 at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. During a 90 minute demonstration, the mouse, video display, on-screen pointer, computer graphics, multiple windows, and hyperlinks were all introduced to the world.

The mouse worked exactly as today's mechanical mice do, with wheels to sense the motion of the operator's hand and a set of three buttons on top to issue commands. Dr. Engelbart called it a mouse throughout the demonstration, though he admitted he couldn't remember where the name came from.

I was once told that the device had originally been referred to as the “Motion Sensor”. This was soon shortened to Mo Se (pronounced "mosay") by the engineers working on it. Through repeated use, and the natural corruption that occurs in language, Mo Se became mouse. I cannot confirm this story, however, I recall seeing a pointing device displayed at a California electronics store in the 1980s that was packaged as a Mose instead of a mouse.

Computers, in 1969, communicated with humans through teletype machines, punched cards, and large printers. Dr. Engelbart introduced a video image that was created on a round cathode ray tube (CRT) with white characters on a black background. A high resolution television camera captured the image and reversed the colours to produce black characters on a paper white background. This was displayed on a video monitor, thus showing results in real time rather than waiting for a print-out.

Files were created, such as a grocery list consisting of bread, fruit and shampoo. Each element could contain its own sub-list, as in separating apples and oranges under fruit. Sub-lists could contain other sub-lists such as Navel and Valencia for types of oranges. These could be expanded to reveal detail or collapsed down to categories.

Items marked with what Dr. Engelbart called "Hidden Links" allowed the operator to jump to entirely different text and graphics, much like today's hyperlinks.

Along with a keyboard and mouse, there was a device with five switches that could be depressed in combinations to issue commands such as save, load, copy, replicate (paste), and delete. This filled the same function as today's on-screen menus.

The main frame computers that ran the GUI were located at the SRI lab in Menlo Park, some 30 miles (48km) south of San Francisco. The video signal and input from the keyboard and mouse were carried over a dedicated telephone line connecting the two locations. As a result, Dr. Engelbart and his team also demonstrated video teleconferencing for the first time.

Stanford University has a wonderful web site devoted to the mouse and Dr. Engelbart's work with video archives of the actual San Francisco demonstration from the 9th of December, 1968. It can be viewed on-line at http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html. The site contains additional links to Dr. Engelbart's work and the history of the mouse.

Dr. Engelbart's demonstration was well received, but few people were interested in implementing his ideas at the time. Large, mainframe computers were king and the infrastructure to run them was both ridged and filled with politics. The concepts of the GUI and the mouse were just too new.

It would take a second visionary from an office machine company to turn Dr. Engelbart's pioneering work into a viable product.

Next Time: Xerox PARC and the first commercial GUI computer.


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