I’m always fascinated that someone designed just about everything you use, no matter how trivial it is. The keyboard you type on, the light switch you turn on, even the faucet handle. They don’t just spontaneously grow on trees, so some human being had to build it and probably had at least a hazy design in mind when they started it.
Some things are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember that someone had to dream them up to begin with. A friend of mine asked me the other day why we use Control+X and Control+V to manipulate the clipboard almost universally. Control+C for copy makes sense, of course, but it is still odd that it is virtually universal in an industry where everyone likes to reinvent the wheel. I wasn’t sure of the answer but figured it had to do with some of the user interface standards from IBM or Sun. Turns out, it is much older than that.
While things like object oriented computing and model-view-controller are old hat these days, when Smalltalk burst on the scene, many people had never heard of these new ideas. While the little language with roots at Xerox and based on Simula never caught fire, it was very influential in a number of ways. Now Smalltalk luminary [Dan Ingalls] has the Smalltalk Zoo, a collection of Smalltalk-related items including several historical simulations you can run in your browser.
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.
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.
It is 1980-something and you see someone typing on a keyboard. The display is graphical, and they use a mouse to finish a document, send it over the network to another similar computer, where another user edits it a bit and prints it on a laser printer. Given the time-frame you might think the computer is a Mac, but you’d be wrong. The Xerox Star had all the features Apple “invented” about three years before the Macintosh arrived. If you never heard of the Star, that’s not surprising. At $16,500 each, there were only about 25,000 sold. Your chances of finding a working one now are slim, but thanks to emulation created by [Josh Dersch] you can try the Star out on your hardware today. If you want a preview, have a look at the 1982 video, below.
The machine had a surprisingly complex architecture. The main CPU was a microcoded computer with multiple registers that would run a sort of microcode program to execute different instruction sets depending on what was running. In addition, there was an intel 8085 that loaded the right microcode and serviced the keyboard, the mouse, the floppy, and the serial ports.
The Xerox Alto was a minicomputer that had a lot of firsts to its name: first GUI, first Ethernet connection, and first computer to use a laser printer. This is the computer that inspired Steve Jobs to build the Lisa. And this was built all back in 1973! So when [Ken Shirriff] and a team of other old-computer aficionados got their hands on one, you know they’d get to work.
[Ken]’s blog describes the start of what’s sure to be a long journey. It mostly describes the Alto system and locates its place in computer history, but there are some interesting sidelines as well — like how [Alan Kay] also basically outlined all of the functionality of the modern laptop / tablet along the way to the Alto; it was supposed to be an interim Dynabook.
Work on this grandfather-of-modern-computers is just getting started, and [Ken] and crew are dusting off the power supplies and cataloguing memory boards. You can be sure that we’ll follow along with this restoration project, and keep you informed.
You may be used to seeing rack mounted equipment with wires going everywhere. But there’s nothing ordinary about what’s going on here. [Elecia White] and [Dick Sillman] are posing with the backbone servers they’ve been designing to take networking into the era that surpasses IPv6. That’s right, this is the stuff of the future, a concept called Content Centric Networking.
Join me after the break for more about CCN, and also a recap of my tour of PARC. This is the legendary Palo Alto Research Company campus where a multitude of inventions (like the computer mouse, Ethernet, you know… small stuff) sprang into being.