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The History of the PC Part 3

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Too much sugar and the tale of a mouse

February 27, 2002

Around the year 1951, Doug Engelbart was feeling there was something important he should be working on — dedicating his career to. He had been several years out of the Navy where he served during World War II as an electronic/radar technician in the Philippines.

Two years previously, he graduated from Oregon State University, completing his Bachelors Degree in Electrical Engineering, and he settled on the San Francisco peninsula as an electrical engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory, a forerunner of NASA.

Being a conscientious kind of a guy, he thought about the world's problems a lot, and what he as an engineer might possibly be able to do about them. Like Ivan (the not so terrible) Sutherland, who pioneered one of the first computer graphics programs around 1963, Engelbart fidgeted nervously with his slide rule and pocket protector as he pondered the fate of the developing world of technology. He had read about the development of the computer, and seriously considered how it might be used to improve the lot of mankind. As a radar technician in the war, Engelbart was inspired at how information could be displayed on a glowing CRT screen.

One night at his laboratory, while consuming massive doses of sugary carbonated beverages, he began having visions of people sitting in front of displays, "flying around" in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility. After the sugar rush wore off, he set out across the frontier of digital technology to make his vision a reality – but not before he earned his Ph.D. in 1955 at the graduate program in Electrical Engineering at U.C. Berkeley, where he stayed on as Acting Assistant Professor.

I was just kidding about the sugar, but seriously, Engelbart was soon warned that his "wild" ideas could suppress any further advancement in his career at the university. Then again, what can a person expect from a guy who had just been awarded several patents for bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices. It was also no way to treat a guy who was to be the second person in history to log on to the Internet.

Let’s skip ahead to the year 1960, where, after being rejected for the opportunity to develop digital computer technology at the Stanford School of Engineering, as well as being summarily dismissed by David Packard of Hewlett Packard fame, Engelbart ended up at the Stanford Research Institute.

By the end of 1968, Engelbart and his colleagues at SRI had invented not only the mouse, but also demonstrated, at a conference to more than 1,000 computer researchers, elements that would become the foundation of modern computing. Included in the conference were demonstrations of hypertext (the basis of links on the Internet), dynamic on-screen editing and video-conferencing.

The first mouse, though conceived by Engelbart, was developed by some of his cohorts at SRI including hardware design by Bill English along with other improvements in the hardware and software by Jeff Rulifson.

“The actual invention of the mouse was the result of analyzing the various characteristics of other pointing/input devices,” Engelbart said in a recent interview. “Much as the Periodic Table of the Elements has characteristics which define groups along rows and columns, we laid out a grid of existing devices. And just as the Periodic Table’s rules have led to the discovery of certain previously unknown elements, this grid ultimately defined the desirable characteristics of a device that didn’t exist. That device was the mouse.”

The patent for the mouse was held by SRI and was later licensed to Apple for the paltry sum of $40,000 for use in their Lisa computer released in 1983.

 In the next issue of TRJ we’ll take a look at some of the early GUI’s or Graphical User Interfaces used in commercial PC’s.


 Ben Silverman is a Sandpoint resident with a fondness for mice - especially the computer kind.


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Ben Silverman

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