Monday, July 8, 2013

The Mouse

Dr Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)

As you’re reading this blog right now, unless you are using an IPad or Smartphone, the probability is that you are caressing this little gadget that has revolutionized the way we communicate. I’m talking about the mouse, whose inventor died this past week. So we honor today Douglas C. Engelbart who was 25 when he had an epiphany in 1950 that would change the world. The epiphany spoke to him of technology’s potential to expand human intelligence, and from it he spun out a career that indeed had lasting impact. It led to a host of inventions that became the basis for the Internet and the modern personal computer. In later years, one of those inventions was given a warmhearted name, evoking a small, furry creature given to scurrying across flat surfaces: the computer mouse.

In December 1968, Engelbart set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, one of a series of national conferences in the computer field that had been held since the early 1950s. Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them. For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing. Douglas Carl Engelbart was born in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 25, 1925. He spent his formative years on a farm in suburban Portland, graduated from high school in 1942 and attended Oregon State College. Toward the end of World War II, he was drafted. He spent two years in the Navy, one of them in the Philippines, as a radar technician.

The idea for the mouse — a pointing device that would roll on a desk — occurred to Dr. Engelbart in 1964 while he was attending a computer graphics conference. He was musing about how to move a cursor on a computer display. Early versions of the mouse had three buttons, because that was all the case could accommodate, even though Dr. Engelbart felt that as many as 10 buttons would be more useful. Two decades later, when Steve Jobs added the mouse to his Macintosh computer, he decided that a single button was appropriate. The Macintosh designers believed in radical simplicity, and Mr. Jobs argued that with a single button it was impossible to push the wrong one.

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