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The computer mouse at 40: Remembering history in the making

Forty years ago, Douglas Engelbart gave a 90-minute presentation on a "computer-based, interactive, multiconsole display system" under development at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), according to an official announcement of the event. The system was designed to investigate "principles by which interactive computer aids can augment intellectual capability." This event—attended by about 1,000 computer professionals—would later be called by many the "mother of all demos" and would introduce the world to a number of computing capabilities largely taken for granted today: the computer mouse, hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking.

As ScientificAmerican.com reported last month, it would be another two years before the U.S. Patent Office officially recognized the mouse, at the time called a "X-Y position indicator for a display system." Engelbart, 83, filed the patent in 1967 but had to wait three years for the government to acknowledge his technology, which provided the tool needed to navigate graphics-filled computer screens with a simple motion of the hand rather than by wading through screens filled with green-tinted text using keys or a light pencil pressed up against a computer monitor.

Several news reports have paid homage to Engelbart's innovative showmanship. Jeff Rulifson, now director of Sun Microsystems' VLSI (very-large-scale integration) research group but in 1968 architect and lead programmer for the software Engelbart demo, told BBC News, "I think people get fixated on the mouse. It's a symbol they can hang on to but the idea behind it was this idea of putting text into NLS [the computer system that ran it all] and giving it an entirely new flexibility." CNET offers an extensive photo gallery of the work that went into that famous presentation, including images of Englebart and the original mouse he invented. And Bill English, the SRI engineer who actually built the first mouse out of a wood block, reminisced to the San Francisco Chronicle, "The standing ovation surprised all of us."

©iStockphoto.com/ Dmitriy Shironosov

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