The militaristic past of the computer mouse

As is known from the textbook history of the computer mouse, its inventor Douglas Engelbart first publicly demonstrated the mouse to colleagues at the Autumn Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in December 1968. He moved a small wooden box with a button around the lectern, swapping paragraphs of text on the computer screen and switching from text to images.

In the first version of the Engelbart mouse of the 1963 model, there was one button in the upper right corner of the box, in subsequent versions their number increased to three. There were two wheels inside the mouse case, located perpendicular to each other, they spun when the mouse moved along the table surface, the sensors took their turns, converted the analog electrical signal into a digital one, and the cursor on the screen followed the trajectory of the mouse movement on the table.

Since then, computer mice have bred incredibly, no one counted their numbers, but if you consider that only one company, Logitech International SA, released its billionth mouse in 2008, then their total number now may have already exceeded the entire population of the Earth, or maybe be, and the number of real mice on the planet too.

What is less known is that the first computer mouse was assembled not at all by Engelbart, but by his employee William (Bill) English in 1963. The first was the boss, and the second was the subordinate. But in 1970 Engelbart received patent US3541541A on “XY position indicator for a display system” with 1967 priority. But, as Bill English recalled many years later in his BBC interview, his boss Engelbart did not get rich by patenting his mouse.

Both of them worked at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). Its name can be translated into Russian as the Center for the Expansion of Research (it was understood – computer research). ARC was legally part of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which, in turn, was established by the Stanford University Board of Trustees specifically for the development of new technologies.

ARC was created specifically for Douglas Engelbart and was funded first by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and then by NASA. The main achievement of ARC was the revolutionary online system of personal computers – the embryo of the Internet. At a conference in San Francisco in 1968, Engelbart demonstrated an online conference, which was still transmitted by wire and over a relatively short distance, but in which its participants could read and edit texts together. The pointing device “computer mouse” was only a necessary peripheral component of this system.

In the late 1970s, Stanford Research Institute sold ARC (along with its director Engelbart) to Tymshare, the latter was bought by McDonnell Douglas, which was absorbed by the world’s largest aerospace corporation The Boeing Company, also along with Douglas Engelbart and his mouse patent. Times were changing, and Engelbart remained a well-known and respected person in the IT community, but he was already pressed by a new generation of IT engineers. In 1986, he resigned from the Boeing Corporation and went on a freelance basis.

The mouse patent brought him fame. As for the material profit, then, according to Bill English, “the only money Doug ever received from this was a Xerox license for 50 thousand dollars.” Mr. English knew what he was talking about: in 1970, he had left Engelbart for Xerox PARC, Xerox’s scientific division, created with the goal of entering the emerging computer market, since Xerox’s patent right for the copier had ended, and there were many of them pressed by the Japanese.

In 1972, English made his own version of the mouse for Xerox PARC. In it, a ball slid along the surface of the table, which twisted two rollers. In addition, it did not require an analog-to-digital converter, but instead sent digital location information directly to the computer. This design of the mouse was the most common almost until the end of the twentieth century, older people should remember mice with a ball well.

Xerox paid $50,000 to Engelbart for the license. The money was big for those times, but the entire income of the inventor of the mouse from the patent for it is exhausted by it. The intellectual property rights on it expired in 1987, that is, even before the mouse became one of the most common technical devices on the planet.

Of course, Douglas Engelbart was not tormented by nightmares, like Lyolika from The Diamond Arm, who dreamed of a voice: “So that you live on one patch!” First, Dr. Engelbart’s salary has always been very decent, and after his dismissal from Boeing, he became the honorary founder of the Doug Engelbart Institute, and his daughter Christina became the executive director of their family institute. Engelbart founded the Institute of his own name with the money of DARPA, that is, the US Department of Defense. Next came the Turing Prize of $250,000 and the Lemelson–MIT Prize of $500,000.

In addition, Engelbart had not only a patent for a computer mouse, but more than 20 patents in various areas of IT technologies. In a word, his old age was no less happy than his whole life. He managed to participate in the celebrations on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the computer mouse and died at the age of 88 in his home in the California town of Atherton, which led the ranking of US cities with the highest incomes among residents in the pre-Covid era.

In numerous interviews for the American media, Douglas Engelbart repeatedly repeated that when life forced him to study computers at Stanford in December 1950, he immediately realized that a computer could not only reflect the results of calculations on a display screen, but also make something take place in the real world.

This idea, according to Engelbart, prompted him to work for two and a half years in front of the radar display. He did not participate in the hostilities of World War II, the transport with Private Engelbart left San Francisco and headed for the Philippines on the day Japan surrendered, but Engelbart, a second-year student at the University of Oregon, had a year of training as a radar station technician behind him, and a year and a half ahead services in the Philippines.

Probably similar ideas came to Ralph Benjamin, a graduate of Imperial College London, who in 1944 was assigned to the Royal Naval Scientific Service to work on a completely new topic for him – radar. He first worked in a group that was developing a radar for detecting submarine snorkels and periscopes, and then transferred to a joint Anglo-American project to develop a friend-foe radar identification system. Here he was responsible for the development of a suitable display for the simulator, capable of technically coping with mutual interference both with a very large number of interrogators and interrogators, ships, aircraft and their targets. In a word, I had to create a monitor for what is now called military game simulators and is very popular among the people, only for a real war, and not for its virtual simulation in computer games.

The job was complex, the tactical simulator had many echo dots on the display, and a marker on the screen (cursor in modern terminology) was required to locate each in a rectangular coordinate system. “We used a joystick to mark targets because it was already available at the time,” Ralph Benjamin recalled many years later. Its possible alternative, the light pen, did not appear until the 1950s. “But I came up with what I called the ‘roller ball’, now known as a mouse, which I told colleagues would be more elegant and long-term,” Benjamin continued.

As for the long-term, he looked into the water: now his “roller ball” is called a trackball, many probably remember him from the first laptops, where he was in place and instead of a touchpad. As for his “elegance”, the naval officers who worked with the scientist on a tactical battlefield simulator project reacted to the high style of a civilian colleague with typical naval humor: “I stand at the radar so elegant, follow the enemy aircraft, roll my hand one of my balls, and the joystick has dried up from it.

But jokes are jokes, and Ralph Benjamin really created the first computer mouse in 1946 17 years earlier than Engelbart’s “wheel” mouse and 26 years earlier than English’s roller mouse. At the same time, the latter actually combined in his mouse of the 1972 model from Xerox PARC the electromechanical part of the mice of Benjamin and Engelbart. The circle is closed. Such a design, as already mentioned, turned out to be successful and was the main one for computer mice until the beginning of our century. Optical mice first appeared in 1982, but many more years passed before they completely replaced the electromechanical mouse from everyday life.

Then came light, wireless infrared, radio frequency, LED, laser, gyroscopic, ultrasonic 3D mice, as well as many of their hybrids with old electromechanical mice. And the era of electronic-mechanical mice ended in the twentieth century. But if Engelbart’s mouse is now a museum exhibit, then Benjamin’s roller is still in the service of the military, for which even the most advanced samples of civilian mice are not suitable, they are too delicate for combat conditions: the simpler the mechanics, the more reliable and less the risk of failure.

Benjamin’s trackball was patented by the military department in his name in 1947, like the rest of his inventions, but then they were secret and did not have much effect on civilian “mouse building”. Although the British have always been jealous of the lifetime glory of the inventor of the computer mouse, the American Engelbart. It began under Margaret Thatcher, who publicly declared that the priority in this area undoubtedly belongs to the British, and Queen Elizabeth II awarded Ralph Benjamin the Order of the Bath. Honoring continued to this day and even after the death of the inventor, and Ralph Benjamin lived even longer than Engelbart: he died in 2019.

When Ralph Benjamin retired from the Royal Naval Scientific Service in 1964, Sir Frank Cooper, head of the civil services at the British Ministry of Defense, said at the farewell ceremony: “Since your arrival in 1944, you have gained a reputation for original thinking and deep theoretical understanding . Evidence of this is your numerous patents and your unusually early promotion at all levels. Your pioneering contributions to radar and signal processing, and the automation of activity data, laid the foundation for instruments and devices that continue to be built to this day.”

Modern military mice continue to be created to this day, and they, of course, differ from the “elegant” Benjamin balls, but for obvious reasons, even those who know will not tell what exactly. And Benjamin’s 1946 trackball is no longer a secret. The commander pointed the cursor at the target that he considered the most dangerous, on the additional display of the radar, the trajectory of the movement of this target, its speed and its other characteristics appeared, which were automatically transmitted to the fire control point, where the computer, then a lamp the size of a grandmother’s buffet, automatically calculated the sight . It remained only to “click”, then press the “Fire” button on the fire control panel, and a rocket was launched towards the target or artillery shells flew.

About the service Online Patent

Online Patent is the number 1 digital system in the Rospatent rating. Since 2013, we have been creating unique LegalTech solutions for the protection and management of intellectual property. Register in the Online Patent service and get access to the following services:

  • Online registration of programs, patents for invention, trademarks, industrial design;

  • Submission of an application for inclusion in the register of domestic software;

  • Options for accelerated registration of services;

  • Free search in databases of patents, programs, trademarks;

  • Monitoring of new applications by criteria;

  • Online support of specialists.

For more articles, analytics from experts and useful information about intellectual property in Russia and the world, look at our Telegram channel.

Get a discount of 2000 rubles on your first order. More details in the pinned post.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *