Who Invented The Mouse? Are You Sure?

If you ask most people who invented the mouse, they won’t know. Those that do know, will say that Doug Englebart did. In 1964 he had a box with two wheels that worked like a modern mouse as part of his work at Stanford Research Institute. There is a famous demo video from 1968 of him showing off what looks a lot like an old Mcintosh computer. Turns out, two other people may have an earlier claim to a mouse — or, at least, a trackball. So why did you never hear about those?

The UK Mouse

Ralph Benjamin worked for Britain’s Royal Navy, developing radar tracking systems for warships. Right after World War II, Ralph was working on the Comprehensive Display System — a way for ships to monitor attacking aircraft on a grid. They used a “ball tracker.” Unlike Engelbart’s mouse, it used a metallic ball riding on rubber-coated wheels. This is more like a modern non-optical mouse, although the ball tracker had you slide your hand across the ball instead of the other way around. Sort of a trackball arrangement.

Turns out, the navy preferred a joystick and the work was all secret. Ralph went on to important positions with GCHQ and NATO, and while he got no credit, he reportedly was pleased that people were using a device he thought of, even if they didn’t learn about it from his invention.

You could argue this device didn’t have a lot in common with a modern mouse but look at the photo of the inside of an old serial mouse. There’s a ball. Little wheels move as the ball moves and photosensors detect the motion and direction of the little wheels. Flipped over, this is a simple trackball.

Whither Canada?

Although it was secret from the public, Canadian engineers working for Ferranti Canada had a chance to see the system and in 1949 started working on DATAR — a system attempting to build a common operation picture from sensor data across a naval task force.

They built a trackball similar to the one Ralph had, although their choice of balls was a Canadian five-pin bowling ball. If you are unfamiliar with this variation of bowling, the balls are small enough to fit in one hand and, thus, usually have no finger holes.

DATAR was a success and everyone who saw it was impressed. However, no one wanted to go in with the Royal Canadian Navy and they could not bear the cost alone. Despite building a successful prototype in four years, the program ended.

The DATAR trackball used two X disks and two Y disks. The disks made mechanical contact with wires and counting pulses allowed the system to understand the ball’s position. Once again, the project was secret, so not many people saw one of these in action.

Commercialization

Despite all of this early activity, it would be 1965 or 1966 before commercial trackballs showed up. The German company Telefunken offered a trackball in 1965 and by 1968 had realized you could flip it upside down to create what we’d call a mouse. They called both devices the RKS 100-86 and you can see it in the adjacent photo.

From Theory to Practice

The mouse we know is a far cry from an RKS 100-86 or Engelbart’s original mouse (see the adjacent photo).

Today’s mouse probably has a laser sensor and a raft of buttons. But the idea is still the same: provide a high-resolution way to point at something on the screen and take action on it.

There are alternatives. The trackball is still around and favored by hardcore touch typists. There are trackpads and some laptops have the little eraser knobs. There’s touchscreens and a vanishing number of light pens. But the mouse has survived the test of time to be the predominant way we interact with screens. Not bad for a trackball turned upside-down.

And if you’ve never seen the 1968 “Mother of all Demos” from Engelbart showing wordprocessing, instant messaging, hyperlinks, an awesome function keypad, and — of course — the mouse in use, you can find it in the video below.

Photo Credits:

Serial mouse © Raimond Spekking CC BY-SA 4.0

RKS 100-86 [Marcin Wichar] CC-BY-SA-2.0

Engelbart mouse [SRI International] CC-BY-SA-3.0

40 thoughts on “Who Invented The Mouse? Are You Sure?

  1. Back in the 70’s I worked with a digitizing system associated used by the company for early IC design. The board had an inductive grid and a mouse like puck pickup on it with function buttons on it. Except for the self tracking functionality of a mouse it was much more mouse-like than a track ball.

    1. Sounds something like a Houston Instruments Hipad Digitizer. I have one in my closet from a Boeing surplus sale many years ago. I also used a similar digitizer on a 3D visualization project when I was an intern. The Hipad I have talks over RS-232 and should still work on a modern PC, albeit with custom software interpreting the data.

      1. Then Xerox PARC did another study, comparison of pointing devices. This time it was 1978:
        Card, S. K., English, W. K., and Burr, B. J.
        Evaluation of mouse, rate-controlled isometric joystick, step keys, and text keys for text selection on a CRT, Ergonomics21 (1978), 601-613.

          1. Xeon: Or Jef Raskin was present at the SRI presentation and developed his HMI for a one-button mouse, which he conveyed to Jobs during their many hours of walking and talking.

  2. I’ve read histories that detail Englebart’s work and the Mac, and I’m sure they discussed the trackball. I doubt names were given,but it implied an evolution leading to the mouse.

    I thiught this would dig up some early mouse, but a trackball isn’t a mouse, even if the early mice’s operation derives from the trackball.

  3. Instead of a laser scanner, many optical mice use black and white digital image sensors. I believe Hackaday had an article years ago where someone re-purposed one as a poor quality digital camera.

    1. I was working at a large computer manufacturer in the late 90’s and they had an internal tech talk on a newly developed sensor that used a crude camera and did a correlation of the previous image and the new image to derive motion. They had working silicon and I beleive that they already had customers for it.

    1. In the UK we have a similar game called Skittles, which uses a similar sized ball (usually made of wood), but nine pins (also wood). I’ve only ever seen it played in pubs. Like this.
      (In the last thirty odd years we’ve also imported US style ten pin bowling, but that happens in big purpose built buildings, instead of damp rooms in the back of pubs).

    1. Very interesting, thanks for the photo. One doubt: in the lower right of the image there is a little tube protuding from under the device. It looks like a connection for a hose; may be it is for a compressed air supply, to make the ball “float” over an air cushion and move more smoothly with almost no resistance ?

      Best regards,

      A/P Daniel F. Larrosa
      Montevideo – Uruguay

  4. In the same lost folio that Da Vinci described frogs legs based avionics for his helicopter, and the precursor to the arduino “device for blinking a lantern”, there was a device for directly sketching a design to a loom, that some say was the first mouse. ;-)

    1. McIntosh? It’s a shrunken dried out form of Haggis used as a Sporran by The Royal Scotts Dragoon Guards for the The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo I thought….. Saves wearing underpants apparently….

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