gif of first mouse from four angles learn how and why Doug Engelbart invented the mouse, with links to more
Watch the world debut of the Mouse in this segment of the Trailer from Doug's 1968 Demo (1:40)
Watch Doug and Bill tell the story (1999)

Historic Firsts:  
"Father of the Mouse" 0

Overview 1

Doug Engelbart invented the computer mouse in the early 1960s in his research lab at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). The first prototype was built in 1964, the patent application for this "X-Y position indicator for a display system" was filed in 1967, and US Patent 3,541,541 was awarded in 1970. Although many impressive innovations for interacting with computers have followed in the last 50 years since its invention, the mouse remains to this day the most efficient hands on pointing device available for speed and accuracy. 1a

The first mouse now on exhibit at the Smithsonian! Click here for details.

The First Mouse 2

The basic idea for the mouse first came to him in 1961 while sitting in a conference session on computer graphics, his mind mulling over the challenge of making interactive computing more efficient. It occurred to him that, using a pair of small wheels traversing a tabletop, one wheel turning horizontally, one turning vertically, the computer could track their combined rotations and move the cursor on the display accordingly. The wheels could function something like the wheels on a planimeter – a tool used by engineers and geographers to measure areas on a map, blueprint, drawing, etc. – but in this case, rolling the wheels around on the tabletop would plot the x,y coordinates for a cursor on a computer screen. He recorded the idea in his notebook for future reference.

Since 1951 Doug had envisioned intellectual workers sitting at high-performance interactive display workstations, accessing a vast online information space in which to collaborate on important problems. When pondering the question of pointing devices in 1961, he was in the midst of an in-depth study of how teams and organizations might become much more effective in solving important problems. In 1962 he published his findings in "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," which in 1963 garnered him some modest funding from ARPA to begin to hire a very small research team, and set up a basic lab with computer resources, teletypes, and finally, a display workstation.

By now there were several off-the-shelf solutions for moving a cursor and selecting something on a display screen, but no good data about which would be most efficient to meet Engelbart's "high-performance" requirement. He applied for and was awarded a small grant from Bob Taylor at NASA to explore that question.

Doug and team rounded up then best-of-breed pointing devices to compare, and rigged up some in-house prototypes to add to the mix, such as a foot pedal and a knee-operated device (see Mouse Alternatives below). He also reviewed his earlier notes with his lead engineer Bill English, who built a prototype of the hand-held device with perpendicular wheels mounted in a carved out wooden block, with a button on top, to test with the others. This was the first mouse (pictured above and below). Watch Doug and Bill (above right) discussing this study and the first mouse.

The Mouse Wins 3

In 1965 Engelbart's team published the final report of their study evaluating the efficiency of the various screen-selection techniques. They had pitted the mouse against a handful of other devices, some off the shelf, some of their own making (see Mouse Alternatives below). The mouse won hands down, and was thus included as standard equipment in their research moving forward (see Screen-Selection Experiments below for links to key reports and papers detailing these experiments). In 1967, SRI filed for the patent on the mouse, under the more formal name of "x,y position indicator for a display system," and the patent was awarded in 1970.

the first computer mouse in context - circa 1964
The first mouse plugged into it's display workstation - circa 1964

Enter, the Keyset: To further increase efficiency, Engelbart's team thought to offer a companion to the mouse – a device for the left hand to enter commands or text while the right hand was busy pointing and clicking (shown above). After trying out several variations, they settled on a telegraph-style "keyset" with five piano-like keys. This keyset also became standard equipment in the lab (pictured below). Both devices were introduced to the public in Engelbart's 1968 demonstration, now known as the "Mother of All Demos" (see Check It Out below for links to selected video footage of the debut, historic photos, and more). 3b

   1968 version includes 3-button mouse and 5 key keyset 1968 version includes three-button mouse and five-key keyset
(click to enlarge)

In Doug's Words: 3c

The mouse we built for the [1968] show was an early prototype that had three buttons. 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.

I first started making notes for the mouse in '61. At the time, the popular device for pointing on the screen was a light pen, which had come out of the radar program during the war. It was the standard way to navigate, but I didn't think it was quite right.

Two or three years later, we tested all the pointing gadgets available to see which was the best. Aside from the light pen there was the tracking ball and a slider on a pivot. I also wanted to try this mouse idea, so Bill English went off and built it.

We set up our experiments and the mouse won in every category, even though it had never been used before. It was faster, and with it people made fewer mistakes. Five or six of us were involved in these tests, but no one can remember who started calling it a mouse. I'm surprised the name stuck.

We also did a lot of experiments to see how many buttons the mouse should have. We tried as many as five. We settled on three. That's all we could fit. Now the three-button mouse has become standard, except for the Mac.


Check It Out 4

Watch a history of the mouse, the dawn of personal and interactive computing

the first computer mouse - circa 1964 Check out the "first mouse" photos and patent drawings at Stanford's MouseSite   
Click to watch how the mouse changed lives

original mouse
Visit this digital Mouse Exhibit

at the Computer History Museum

Watch Doug telling the story of how he invented the mouse in Logitech's 2004 interview. 4a

Watch Doug telling the story in this 2002 interview with John Markoff at the Computer History Museum. 4b

Witness the 1968 debut of the mouse and keyset, and watch the mouse and keyset in action in Doug's 1968 "Mother of All Demos" (see SRI's 1968 Demo Highlights for more) 4c

Watch "The Computer Mouse", a video short on how the mouse changed lives and enabled the personal computing industry to take off and thrive. 4d

Explore the Stanford University MouseSite where you will find images of the first mouse, the US Patent on the Mouse, historic photos from the lab, and much more. 4e

See also SRI's Timeline on Innovation: Computer Mouse and Interactive Computing, MIT Press Designing Interactions: Doug Engelbart, Macworld's mouse history timeline, PC Advisor's 40th anniversary timeline, and our History in Pix photo gallery. 4f

Check out the online Exhibit on the Mouse and Keyset at the Computer History Museum, as well as press coverage of their 2001 event "Early Computer Mouse Encounters". 4g

Debunking the Xerox PARC Mouse Myth 5

In the early 1970s, the mouse migrated from Doug's lab at SRI to Xerox PARC (along with some of his team), and later to Apple when Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC, and beyond. One of the most common myths about the mouse is the mistaken belief that it was invented at Xerox PARC. Note that the first mouse was built in 1964, the patent for the mouse was filed in 1967, and demonstrated to an audience of over a thousand in 1968, by which time production models were in operational use throughout Doug's lab. Xerox PARC did not exist until 1970. 5a

Mouse Alternatives 6

Engelbart and his team tested a half dozen pointing devices for speed and accuracy. These included the mouse, and a knee apparatus (pictured below, right), both created in-house, along with several off the shelf devices such as DEC's Grafacon (pictured below, center, modified for testing purposes), a joy stick, and a light pen. See Screen-Selection Experiments below for links to more details and photos. They also experimented with a foot pedal device as well as a head mounted device, neither of which made it into the final tests. 6a

From Doug Engelbart's experiments with pointing devices in the mid 1960s
DEC's gyro-stlye "Grafacon"
A knee-operated pointing device
(click to enlarge)

Joy stick and mouse

A small piece of a large vision 7

In the 1950s, Doug Engelbart set his sights on a lofty goal -- to develop dramatically better ways to support intellectual workers around the globe in the daunting task of finding solutions to larger and larger problems with greater speed and effectiveness than ever before imagined. His goal was to revolutionize the way we work together on such tasks. He saw computers, at the time used primarily for number crunching, as a new medium for advancing the state of the art in collaborative knowledge work. Building on technology available at the time, his research agenda required that his team push the envelope on all fronts: they had to expand the boundaries of display technology and interactive computing and human-computer interface, help launch network computing, and invent hypermedia, groupware, knowledge management, digital libraries, computer supported software engineering, client-server architecture, the mouse, etc. on the technical front, as well as pushing the frontiers in process reengineering and continuous improvement, including inventing entirely new organizational concepts and methodologies on the human front. Engelbart even invented his own innovation strategy for accelerating the rate and scale of innovation in his lab which, by the way, proved very effective. His seminal work garnered many awards, and sparked a revolution that blossomed into the Information Age and the Internet. But as yet we have only scratched the surface of the true potential Engelbart envisioned for dramatically boosting our collective IQ in the service of humankind's greatest challenges. 7a

Genesis of the mouse:8

Doug's Early Vision:
From the introduction of his Augmenting human intellect: A conceptual framework (1962): 8a

Let us consider an augmented architect at work. He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his "clerk") with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices. 8a1

He is designing a building. He has already dreamed up several basic layouts and structural forms, and is trying them out on the screen. The surveying data for the layout he is working on now have already been entered, and he has just coaxed the clerk to show him a perspective view of the steep hillside building site with the roadway above, symbolic representations of the various trees that are to remain on the lot, and the service tie points for the different utilities. The view occupies the left two-thirds of the screen. With a pointer he indicates two points of interest, moves his left hand rapidly over the keyboard, and the distance and elevation between the points indicated appear on the right-hand third of thescreen. 8a2

Doug Engelbart, 1962 [Source]

From As We May Think by Vannevar Bush, 1945 (quoted by Engelbart in Augmenting Human Intellect): 8b

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. 8b1

"It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk. 8b2

Vannevar Bush, 1945 [Source]

Read more... and see how Engelbart was influenced by Vannevar Bush. 8b3

See Also 9

Explore the Web 9a

  Image of Historic Firsts chart Click for more Historic Firsts

From Doug's Lab 9b