William English, Computer Mouse Co-Creator, Has Passed

We are saddened to report that William English, co-inventor of the computer mouse, died July 26 in San Rafael, California. He was 91 years old.

Bill at the controls at Stanford Research Institute. Image via MSN

Every piece of technology starts with a vision, a vague notion of how a thing could or should be. The computer mouse is no different. In fact, the mouse was built to be an integral part of the future of personal computing — a shift away from punch cards and mystery toward a more accessible and user-friendly system of windowed data display, hyperlinks, videoconferencing, and more. And all of it would be commanded by a dot on the screen moving in sync with the operator’s intent, using a piece of hardware controlled by the hand.

The stuff of science fiction becomes fact anytime someone has the means to make it so. Often times the means includes another human being, a intellectual complement who can conjure the same rough vision and fill in the gaps. For Douglas Engelbart’s vision of the now-ubiquitous computer mouse, that person was William English.

William English was born January 27, 1929 in Lexington, Kentucky. His father was an electrical engineer and William followed this same path after graduating from a ranch-focused boarding school in Arizona. After a stint in the Navy, he took a position at Stanford Research Institute in California, where he met Douglas Engelbart.

The first computer mouse, built by William English in the 1960s. Image via Wikipedia

Engelbart showed William his notes and drawings, and he built the input device that Englebart envisioned — one that could select characters and words on the screen and revolutionize text editing. The X/Y Position Indicator, soon and ever after called the mouse: a sort of rough-yet-sleek pinewood derby car of an input device headed into the future of personal computing.

William’s mouse was utilitarian: a wooden block with two perpendicular wheels on the bottom, and a pair of potentiometers inside to interpret the wheels’ X and Y positions. The analog inputs are converted to digital and represented on the screen. The first mouse had a single button, and the cord was designed to run out the bottom, not the top.

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Retrotechtacular: The Mother Of All Tech Demos

Most bits of a computer we take for granted today – the mouse, hypertext, video conferencing, and word processing – were all invented by one team of researchers at Stanford in the late 60s. When the brains behind the operation, [Douglas Engelbart], showed this to 1000 computer researchers, the demo became known as The Mother of all Demos. Luckily, you can check out this demo in its entirety on YouTube.

Even though [Englebart]’s demo looks incredibly dated today, it was revolutionary at the time. This was the first demonstration of the computer mouse (side note: they call the cursor a ‘bug’), a chorded keyboard, and so many other technologies we take for granted today. During the presentation, [Englebart] was connected to the SDS 940 computer via the on-line system 30 miles away from Stanford. Yes, this pre-ARPANET, what is normally cited as the precursor to the Internet.

Sadly, most of [Englebart]’s researchers became disillusioned with the time sharing /mainframe paradigm shown in this demo. Those researchers wanted a more decentralized means of computing, so they went off to Xerox PARC where they helped create the first personal computers. Still, most of the ideas from 1968, such as the mouse, hypertext, and word processing, were in those little Xerox boxes.

On a more philosophical note, [Englebart] began his demo with the question, “If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display, backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?” In the 44 years since this Mother of all Demos, we’ve gotten to the point where we already have a computer on our desks all day that is able to do any task imaginable, and it certainty improved our quality of life.

There are a few great resources covering the Mother of all Demos, including the Douglas Engelbart Institute’s history page and the Stanford Mousesite. Looking back, it’s not only amazing how far we’ve come, but also how little has actually changed.