Mac Musings

Mouse Design: 1963 to 1983

Dan Knight - 2011.04.29 - Tip Jar

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first computer mouse
First computer mouse.

Although it was invented by Doug Engelbart in 1963, the computer mouse wasn't an instant success. That had to wait for the 1980s and the introduction of computers with graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

Telefunken Rollkugel

The first computer mouse was carved from a block of wood and used two wheels to track it motion. The first commercial mouse was the Telefunken Rollkugel, an accessory for Telefunken's computers that replaced the wheels in Engelbart's design with a ball, making it essentially an inverted trackball.

world's first trackball
The first trackball.

The trackball was invented in Canada in 1952. Created by Tom Cranston and Fred Longstaff as part of the Royal Canadian Navy's DATAR system, the first trackball used a 5" Canadian five-pin bowling ball.

Atari CX-80 Trak-Ball
The Atari CX-80 Trak-Ball.

The trackball first came to popularity with Missile Command, an Atari arcade game introduced in 1980 that used a 4" ball. Atari developed a smaller Trak-Ball accessory to provide a similar experience with the popular Atari 2600 video game console.

Engelbart's 3-button mouse
Engelbart's 3-button mouse.

The next development in mouse technology was the introduction of multiple buttons. Engelbart's original design and the Telefunken Rollkugel were single button devices, but the mouse Engelbart demonstrated in 1968 had three buttons. The cord attached to the back of the mouse, where it got tangled too easily, but you can see from the image on the left how the mouse earned its name.

At its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Xerox was busy inventing the GUI. It created a 3-button mouse for its Alto computer, which was developed in 1973. The original Alto mouse used a steel ball, but Xerox eventually switched to an optical design, likely due to maintenance issues with a ball mouse.

When Xerox introduced its Star in March 1981, it used a 2-button optical mouse. In ensuing years, as mice made their way to personal computers, there was something of a battle waged between proponents of 2-button and 3-button mice, with Logitech favoring the 3-button variety starting in 1982 and Microsoft championing the 2-button alternative beginning in 1983.

Logitech P4 mouse and original Microsoft mouse
Logitech's first mouse, the P4, had three buttons, while Microsoft's first mouse had two.

Until 1983, personal computers didn't ship with any type of GUI - they were text-based devices that had graphics modes, but graphics were not used by default. Apple changed all of that with its Lisa, introduced in January 1983 (one year before the first Macintosh) with a 12" monochrome display, a mind boggling 1 MB of memory, a graphical user interface, and a mouse. Specifically, a 1-button mouse.

The powers at Apple concluded that because the mouse was a whole new way for users to interact with their computers, it should be as uncomplicated as possible. Hence, one button - a decision that Apple stuck with until it introduced the Mighty Mouse (later renamed the Apple Mouse due to a trademark lawsuit), a multibutton USB mouse with a scrollwheel that acted exactly like a 1-button mouse unless you reconfigured it in the Keyboard & Mouse system preference.

One very nice feature introduced with Mac OS X: The Mac OS now has built-in drivers for multibutton mice, so you can plug in and use virtually any 2- or 3-button mouse, with or without a scrollwheel, without needing to install a driver. If your mouse has more than three buttons or scrolls sideways, however, you'll need to install drivers.

Over the years, mouse designs have changed. Most today have a scrollwheel, some have more than three buttons, some are wireless, some are ergonomic, and some are tiny. They have been the default tool for interacting with a GUI on desktop computers for 30 years now, and even with trackpads and touchscreens growing in popularity, I don't see them taking over the desktop anytime soon.

Logitech Kidz Mouse
Logitech Kidz™ Mouse.

On a light note, I have to mention an interesting mouse that Logitech once made, the Kidz Mouse. It came in serial PC and ADB Mac versions, and it looks like a gray mouse with green ears and a green tail. A reader sent me one last year, and it's definitely sized for little hands.

It certainly looks a lot more like a mouse than Engelbart's 1968 model! LEM

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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