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Computer Mouse

April 1, 2003

A public radio commentary

The computer mouse is to us nothing special, yet it revolutionized how we use computers. The end of its story is 1968, a time well before the first PC had appeared.

In a San Francisco auditorium Douglas Engelbart sat at a computer console. A huge screen showed his face, overlaid with the display of a computer. Engelbart demonstrated a new device: A clunky, square wood box, just small enough so his hand could fit around it. On top it had a single button, and underneath two wheels. Englebart's presentation of his mouse astonished the crowd.

You see in 1968 computers were not interactive things. You fed in a pile of punch cards, then waited twenty minutes for the computer to do its thing. With Engelbart's mouse the computer could be used instantaneously, becoming an extension of a human being. And that, not just the invention of the mouse, was Douglas Engelbart's great insight.

The mouse began in 1945. Engelbart, age twenty, sat in the Philippines in a bamboo hut, which housed the Red Cross Library. As he waited to be shipped home from the war, he found an article in the Atlantic Monthly. It detailed a way for humans to index the mass of scientific information just beginning to explode. With uncanny accuracy, the 1945 article described the World Wide Web we have today.

Because of this article Engelbart decided to find a way for humans to cope with all that new information. He sketched a system of knobs and levers so that symbols on a screen could be manipulated. He put the idea aside, but it came back full force in 1957.

As he drove to work on his first day as an electrical engineer, he made a life-changing calculation. "I was 25," he recalled, "and I figured, well, 65 is hopefully when I'll quit. So that's 40 years, 2000 hours a year, it ends up being about five million minutes." He asked himself what exactly did he want to do with that five million minutes. He returned to his thoughts about how humans deal with masses of information and that started him on his journey to the mouse.

To him it wasn't a tool, it was a part of a grand idea he called "human augmentation." A way to make the computer an intimate part of our existence.

Although his mouse is extremely successful, he isn't entirely satisfied. He finds his vision of complete human augmentation unrealized: "The personal computer," he says, "has allowed us to work better, but we still work, for the most part, alone. Relative to what our potential is," he adds, "we can go as high as Mt. Everest, and we're only at 2,000 feet."

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises