Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, passes away

When I saw the headline I realized I hadn’t thought very much about who had invented a device I have spent a fair amount of each day touching since August 1985 when I first used a personal computer. The inventor’s name is Doug Engelbart and he passed away Tuesday evening at his home in Atherton, California.

Of all the great inventors Mr Engelbart has to have been among the greatest in terms of the value of his invention to human progress.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when mainframes took up entire rooms and were fed data on punch cards, Engelbart already was envisioning a day when computers would empower people to share ideas and solve problems in ways that seemed unfathomable at the time.

He said his work was all about “augmenting human intellect” – a mission that boiled down to making computers more intuitive to use. One of the biggest advances was the mouse, which he developed in the 1960s and patented in 1970. At the time, it was a wooden shell covering two metal wheels: an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.”

The notion of operating the inside of a computer with a tool on the outside was way ahead of its time when Engelbart began working on it. The mouse did not become commercially available until 1984, with the release of Apple’s then-revolutionary Macintosh, a precursor to future breakthroughs such as the iPhone and iPad.

Engelbart conceived the computer mouse so early in the evolution of computers that he and his colleagues didn’t profit much from it. The mouse patent had a 17-year life span, allowing the technology to pass into the public domain in 1987. That prevented Engelbart from collecting royalties on the mouse when it was in its widest use. At least a billion have been sold since the mid-1980s.

Among Engelbart’s other key developments in computing, along with his colleagues at the Stanford Research Institute and his own lab, the Augmentation Research Centre, was the use of multiple windows. Engelbart’s lab also helped develop ARPANet, the government research network that led to the internet.

In a precursor to the dramatic presentations that Apple founder Steve Jobs became famous for, Engelbart dazzled the industry at a San Francisco computer conference in 1968. Working from his house with a homemade modem, he used his lab’s elaborate new online system to illustrate his ideas to the audience, while his staff linked in from the lab. It was the first public demonstration of the mouse and video teleconferencing, and it prompted a standing ovation.

After the war, Engelbart worked as an electrical engineer for Nasa’s predecessor, NACA, at its Ames Laboratory. Restless, and dreaming of computers that could change the world, Engelbart left Ames to pursue his PhD at University of California, Berkeley.

He earned his degree in 1955. But after joining the faculty, Engelbart was warned by a colleague that if he kept talking about his “wild ideas” he would be an acting assistant professor forever. [bold added] So he left for the research position at Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International.

In 1990, Engelbart started the Bootstrap Institute, which researches ways to advance collaboration on complex problems.

There is also a very nice obituary in the New York Times. Algore, who once claimed to have invented the internet, should read the Times’ obit to find out who the real scientist and engineer was who laid the ground work for the internet.

The importance of Dr. Engelbart’s networking ideas was underscored in 1969, when his Augment NLS system became the application for which the forerunner of today’s Internet was created. The system was called the ARPAnet computer network, and SRI became the home of its operation center and one of its first two nodes, or connection points. (The other node was at the University of California, Los Angeles. Two others followed, at the University of Utah and the University of California, Santa Barbara.).

Sorry, Algore.

I’m thankful that Dr Engelbart left academia and pursued his research career. If you’re listening up there, Dr Engelbart, “Thank You!”

About Mike
A resident of the “30 square miles surrounded by reality,” I spend most of my time teaching economics and statistics to undergraduate students. I enjoy, naturally, economics and business, but also science (I was once an astronomical observatory assistant), politics, photography, food, travel and sports. Madison has grown quite a bit since 1978 when Governor Lee Dreyfus made that remark. According to Wikipedia, Madison is 67.3 square miles of land and 16 square miles of water. Visit for one of my favorite views of the isthmus. Or, why not come visit us!

One Response to Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, passes away

  1. tiffany267 says:

    Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    I love capitalism :)

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