Of mice and users

The first computer mouse demoed by Doug Engelbart in December 1968

In 1968, while violent protests were breaking out around the world, something was sidling its way forward in the tech world: the computer mouse. On 9 December 1968 at the Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, the American engineer Douglas Engelbart conducted a live demonstration of the first computer mouse in what has since been known as the ‘Mother of All Demos’.

I was having trouble understanding the importance of the computer mouse… and then it clicked.

The hopes and achievements of the 1968 protests are still with us today as is the computer mouse. Few computer peripherals have changed less than the mouse, in both functionality and design. At a comparable scale, the mus musculus has evolved more as a species than the computer mouse has.

Of all areas of computer engineering, input hardware has been the most conservative since its beginnings in the 1970s. The primary mode of operating a computer and feeding it information today is through typing and finger or wrist motion. The mouse may have been superseded by the trackpad on laptops and notebooks, but the principle is the same: the hand stimulates the pointer to go running. That is the meaning of the word cursor, which is Latin for runner, chariot racer or messenger, the ancestor of our courier, itself a word twice removed from cursor via Anglo-French ‘courrier’. So the mouse was designed to go running (for pixels, presumably).

It may be a while before the mouse becomes extinct, as did the Flores cave rat by 1500. Until then, we’ll keep gnawing at the screen.

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