gif of first mouse from four angles
Use the Keyset to enter com­mands with one hand while your other hand points and clicks
photo of mouse and keyset in action Doug using keyset with mouse (1968)
Watch the Keyset introduced in this segment from Doug's 1969 Demo Sequel (3min)

Historic Firsts:
The Keyset 0

Overview 1

In addition to inventing the computer mouse, Doug Engelbart and his research team at SRI adapted a five-key "keyset" for typing and entering commands with the left hand while pointing and clicking with the mouse. Reminiscent of equipment used by telegraph operators and stenographers, Engelbart was among the first circa 1965 to use a keyset with a computer, and definitely first to use on a display workstation in concert with a mouse or other pointing device to seamlessly and efficiently navigate the information space, without taking your eyes off the screen. Much like driving a car, you steer, press the pedals, and even shift gears without taking your eyes off the road. 1a

By pressing down the various keys on the keyset like keys on a piano – one at a time or in various combinations – you could type all the letters of the alphabet. In addition, they programmed the buttons on the mouse to work like shift keys and command keys for the keyset. So for example, pressing the middle mouse button while typing on the keyset produced uppercase letters, while pressing the left-most mouse button produced numbers and punctuation instead of letters. Other mouse buttons served as command or ctrl key. Thus with mouse and keyset working together, you could enter the equivalent of every key on the keyboard. 1b

You can watch Doug introduce the keyset and then watch Doug use the keyset and mouse during his 1968 "Mother of All Demos". You can also watch Doug introduce the keyset and mouse in more detail during his 1969 demo (shown at right). 1c

High-Performance User Interface 2

The keyset was not intended to replace the keyboard, since it is much faster to type with both hands on a keyboard. But when one hand is using the mouse or otherwise occupied, it is much faster to type one-handed and enter shortcut keys using the keyset than the keyboard. The command user interface was designed to take advantage of this with easy to remember command shortcuts and a natural language verb noun command scheme. For example, the editing command to switch the places of two words is Transpose Word -- the user enters t for Transpose and w for Word with the keyset while moving the mouse to click once on each of the two words being switched, followed by a final click of the mouse for OK. In this environment, an experienced user could work with extraordinary speed and efficiency. Whereas the modern graphical user interface with menus and icons lowers the threshold for beginning users, Engelbart saw a need to offer a path for cultivating high-performance users. 2a

Watch Doug demo the keyset with mouse during his 1969 presentation, and watch others on his team using the keyset. Also watch Doug demo the user interface during his 1992 management seminar. 2b

This focus on high-performance user interface was a small piece of Engelbart's larger vision -- read more. 2c

A Quick Lesson 3

tracing hand and numbering fingers Doug's teaching method

keyset cue card
Keyset Basics
(click to enlarge)

The keyset's five keys permit 31 combinations of pressed keys, enough to cover the alphabet and then some. Based on a simple progression from right to left, the keyset is actually simple to learn and use. The thumb presses "a", the index finger "b", the two pressed together produce "c", and so on.

Doug liked to teach children and adults by writing numbers on the finger pads of their left hand or on a traced image of their hand: thumb="1" index="2" middle="4" ring="8" and pinkie="16" – easy to remember, you just keep doubling the number. Then he'd walk through counting with these numbered fingers. Your thumb is 1, your index finger is 2, how do suppose you make 3? (A: your thumb and index finger together). Your midddle finger is 4, how do you make 5? (A: middle and thumb together). Your middle and index fingers together make 6, how do you make 7? (A: middle-index-thumb together), and so on. (Math lovers may have already cracked the code at this point, as a standard binary progression.)

  keyset cue card
Keyset Cue Card
(click to view in full)

Now for letters of the alphabet. Letters progress the same way. For example, to get the 1st letter of the alphabet "a" you would press your thumb down on the keyset. For the 2nd letter "b" press your index finger. So how do you make the 3rd letter "c"? (A: thumb and index), and so forth. Often he would supply a cheat sheet listing numbers 1-26 in one column, and corresponding letters of the alphabet in the next column for easy reference.

At this point in the lesson, Doug might have you try typing your name, and then your friend's name. Then he might show you how to incorporate the mouse buttons to extend what you can type, such as pressing middle mouse button while typing letters to get uppercase, or left mouse button to get numbers and punctuation.

Most new users would keep the Keyset cue card (at right) taped to their monitor for easy reference. Knowing the simple progression speeds learning and makes it easier to remember. When you memorize the spelling of your name, you are well on your way. Kids learn this quickly, especially if you explain it is a silent "secret code" that they can use with their friends. It's much easier than learning to type on a keyboard, or to play a musical instrument, for example.

Tests performed in the early '60s showed that temporary secretarial helpers mastered the keyset in less than two hours no matter what method of training was used. They also demonstrated that the regular keyboard is more efficient for straightforward typing, but that for editing and maneuvering text, the mouse-keyset combination is the more efficient.

Watch Doug give a lesson on the keyset during his 1992 management seminar.

Early Prototypes 4

Accompanying his early experiments with pointing devices, Engelbart and his research team explored potential for a left-handed input device. 4a

the first computer mouse in context - circa 1964
The first keyset and mouse plugged into display workstation - circa 1964
(click to enlarge)

The final production keyset was in full use within Doug's lab by the time of the 1968 demonstration (see our "Mother of All Demos" page). 4b

production model keyset - circa 1964
Production model keyset and mouse with display workstation - circa 1968
(click to enlarge)

Photos of Keyset Users 5

Through the years, the keyset was used by at least 100 people in Doug's lab, which grew to a staff of 47 in the mid to late 1970s. Many of those went on to Tymshare, Inc. to commercialize the system used in dozens of end-customer user organizations, while other researchers from Doug's lab had migrated to Xerox PARC, bringing some of the lab's pioneering firsts along, including the mouse and keyset. During the mid 1970s to mid 1980s, there were many keyset users outside the lab in customer organizations. These photos are of Doug's staff: 5a

collage of people using keysets
The keyset in everyday use in Doug's lab
(click to enlarge)

See these and more in our Keyset Album on Facebook. Or check out our History in Pix photo gallery, images of the keyset at the Stanford University MouseSite, the Computer History Museum's Revolution Exhibit online under Input & Output and Navigating Information With Computers, and the Wikipedia article on the Chorded Keyset. 5b

See Also 6

On the Web 6a

  Image of Historic Firsts chart Click for more Historic Firsts

From Doug's Lab 6b

  • The Screen-Selection Experiments: Display-Selection Techniques for Text Manipulation, William K. English, Douglas C. Engelbart and Melvyn L. Berman, March 1967. This paper describes an experimental study into the relative merits of different CRT display-selection devices as used within a real-time, computer-display, text-manipulation system in use at Stanford Research Institute. The mouse was tested against other devices and found to be the most accurate and efficient. See also the 1965 Report and the 1966 Quarterly Report detailing screen-selection experiments. 6b1
  • Visit Historic Firsts - for more of Doug Engelbart's many groundbreaking firsts; related to the Keyset, see especially Interactive Computing and The Mouse. 6b2
  • Visit Doug's Vision for Humanity - among those Historic Firsts, this describes the larger context of his work. 6b3
  • Visit Doug's Great Demo: 1968 - brings to life his early accomplishments with archive footage, photos, fun facts, story, and retrosectives (aka the "Mother of All Demos" – snippets shown above). 6b4
  • Doug Engelbart - A Lifetime Pursuit, a short biographical sketch by Christina Engelbart (5 pages) describes the larger context of this early work. 6b5