Mouse Design: 1963 to 1983

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).

The first mouse

The first computer mouse (left) was carved from a block of wood and used two wheels to track its motion. It was anything but ergonomic.

Telefunken Rollkugel

Telefunken Rollkugel

The first commercial mouse was the Telefunken Rollkugel (right), an accessory for Telefunken’s computers that replaced the wheels in Engelbart’s design with a ball, making it essentially an inverted trackball. It was introduced in late 1968.

The first trackball

The first trackball.

The trackball (left) had been 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 (left) used a 5″ Canadian five-pin bowling ball.

Atari Trak-Ball

Atari 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 (right) 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 (left) had three buttons. The cord attached to the back of the mouse, where it got tangled too easily, but you can see from this image how the mouse earned its name.

Button Wars

At its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Xerox was busy inventing the Graphical User Interface (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. From an operating system perspective, Unix users started with 3-button mice and stuck with them.

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

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.

Or One Button

Apple Lisa

Apple Lisa

Apple changed all of that with its Lisa (right), 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 Lisa mouse

The Lisa mouse

The powers at Apple concluded that because the mouse (Lisa mouse, left) 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 multi-button USB mouse with a scrollball 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 multi-button 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 additional 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 Kidzmouse

Logitech Kidzmouse

On a light note, I have to mention an interesting mouse that Logitech once made, the Kidzmouse (left). It came in serial PC and ADB Mac versions, and it looks like a gray mouse with blue-green ears and a similarly colored tail. A reader sent me one a few years ago, and it’s definitely sized for little hands. It certainly looks a lot more like a mouse than Engelbart’s 1968 model!

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