Those magnificent men and their computing machines

Doug Engelbart with his prototype computer mouse, carved out of a wooden block, with two wheels and a small red button on top. He received a patent for it in 1970
Doug Engelbart with his prototype computer mouse, carved out of a wooden block, with two wheels and a small red button on top. He received a patent for it in 1970. (Photo: Rex)

From Friday’s Daily Telegraph: Early ‘geeks’ such as Doug Engelbart, who died this week, laid the groundwork for the internet 50 years ago

Some things become ubiquitous so quickly that it’s hard to think of a time before them. Mobile phones are one. A few months ago, I was reminded of another, when the inventor of the barcode died. Cat’s eyes, traffic lights, cash machines; they’re almost natural-seeming parts of the environment now, like trees.

Doug Engelbart, who died this week, was the creator of another thing so commonplace that it feels odd to think of it having been created at all: the computer mouse.

Like so many of the great pioneers of the computer age, he didn’t make much money from it: he demonstrated the idea in 1968 and patented it in 1970, meaning that by 1987, when his patent ran out and the idea entered the public domain, mice were still rare. It wasn’t until the rise of the Apple Mac, and then Microsoft Windows, with their point-and-click interfaces, that his invention came into its own. A billion have been sold since, without him making a penny.

They’re so standard now, such a useful, everyday tool, that it’s easy to forget the subtlety of the idea behind them. When Engelbart started working with computers in the Fifties, you typed some numbers in, and that produced some more numbers printed out on paper a little while later. His real vision wasn’t of the mouse itself, but of the screen: a visual display, like the radar he had worked with in the US Navy in the Second World War.

To select parts of the display easily, you’d need a way of pointing at it. A mouse – originally simply two wheels beneath a case, which rolled as you moved it left, right, up, down – was an intuitive way of doing so. (There are various stories about how the term “mouse” arose; the least fanciful seems to be that the cable looks like a tail.)

But Englebart’s dream was grander than that: he wanted to improve how humans think, to “boost our collective IQ”. We can think better if we can share information better, he reasoned, so he became involved in the creation of the first computer networks, including the On-Line System and Arpanet.

Screens and mice were part of the same goal. In 1968 he gave what became known as “the mother of all demos”, demonstrating to an awestruck audience of computer scientists the mouse, video-conferencing, word-processing, and several other then unheard-of concepts that now form the core of our working lives, including clickable “hypertext” that prefigured the internet. He called the process of sharing knowledge in groups with these tools “bootstrapping”, after the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Perhaps unfairly, though, his name is most widely associated with the mouse. And he has died at a time when his own invention, after two-and-a-half decades of undisputed dominance as the main human/computer interface, might be on its way out.

Dinosaurs like me still use them, of course, but touchscreens and trackpads are becoming more common, and young people who know about these things tell me they allow much faster, more intuitive interaction with your computer. Star Trek-style voice commands, or controlling your computer with gestures, as in the film Minority Report, might never catch on as widely, but the technology to do it has been around for a few years. The mouse is going the way of the CD.

That in itself is instructive, though; modern technologies are not so modern any more. If you think of the kind of people who work in developing the internet, you probably think of scruffily bearded 24-year-olds sitting on bean bags in Palo Alto, California. But its true pioneers are dead, or old men: the first message sent on Arpanet, in a moment that has somewhat arbitrarily been called the birth of the internet, was delivered 44 years ago. (It was meant to say LOGIN, but the system crashed after two letters, so it read, rather biblically, LO.)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world wide web and something of an elder statesman now, was just 14 years old at the time. There was a whole generation of early geeks who came out of the Second World War, excited by the electronic technology that the war had stimulated – in Britain, the Bletchley Park codebreakers, led by the great and tragic Alan Turing; in the US, computer visionaries such as Vannevar Bush and Engelbart himself – who, in university labs, garages and workshops, built the modern world out of solder, circuit-boards and capacitors.

And they really did build the modern world, or at least shape it extensively. I’m writing this now by typing straight into an online word processor; I’ve just scrolled up to the top, using the mouse, to check something I’d written earlier. I’ve checked facts and found dates by clicking links.

Doug Engelbart has, indirectly, written this eulogy to himself; without his work, the way we work would be unrecognisable. And in case you’re wondering: it’s computer mice, not computer mouses. Dr Engelbart was very clear about that.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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