40 Years of the Mouse

A celebration of Douglas Engelbart's indomitable, ever-evolving pointing device on the 40th anniversary of its public debut.

The Mouse That Soared

On December 9, 1968, Stanford Research Institute scientist Douglas Engelbart demonstrated his unique invention--the computer mouse--for the first time in public. It took another decade and a half for it to catch on, but once it did, computing was never the same. And today, it's hard to imagine using a desktop or laptop computer without a mouse (or one of its latter-day substitutes such as the touchpad). In celebration of this anniversary, Technologizer's Harry McCracken looks at some of the mightiest mice of the past four decades.

Above is Engelbart's first prototype mouse (held by its inventor). Note the square shape, hand-crafted wood case, and giant wheel inside. The part of this little beast that most resembles a modern mouse is the tail-like cord that gave it its name–though many mice do away with that today, of course. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Mouse Patent Drawings

Two mouse patent drawings: On the left is one from Engelbart's original patent, and on the right is one showing a ball-and-wheel design from a 1974 patent. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Early Logitech Mouse

Early on, it wasn't clear what size or shape a mouse should be, or how many buttons it should have. Some, such as this early Logitech model (circa 1982), looked more like lab instruments than computing devices. (Logitech has gone on to sell more than a billion of the little critters, most of which were a lot more consumer-friendly than this one.)

Microsoft's First Mouse

Apple's introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 may have done more than any other single act to raise the mouse in the public consciousness. But Apple had shipped its first mouse-equipped computer, the ill-fated Lisa, a year earlier. And 1983 was also the year that Microsoft released its first mouse, which cost $195 and required an internal PC card. (Ad image from

Early Apple Mice

These Mac Plus-era Apple Mice from the mid-1980s are primitive compared with today's models. But it seems quite possible that if computer users had been confronted with a modern, multiple-button, cordless, optical, "ergonomic" mouse back then, they would have had no clue what to do with it. Mice had to be simple before they became complex. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Sun Optical Mouse

Optical mice have pretty much driven the old-style ball mouse into extinction today, but back in the 1980s they were exotic and expensive, and required the use of a weird, shiny mousepad. I bought one similar to this Sun model for myself for about $100 circa 1988 for use with my beloved Amiga 500, and was awfully proud of it at the time. (Photo by Hugo Villeneuve.)

Microsoft Mouse 2.0

The 1993 "Microsoft Mouse 2.0" must have been one of the best-selling pointing devices of all time--I still see them faithfully in service 15 years later. But for southpaws such as me, its "ergonomic" design was a curse: It was artfully sculpted to fit...your right hand. (I once had a Microsoft product manager cheerfully tell me that it was a good fit for lefties, too–-as long as they switched hands to use it.) It started a trend toward nonambidextrous design that continues, I'm sorry to say, to this day. (Image from GUIdebook.)

An Early Trackball

Call the trackball the recumbent bicycle of pointing devices: arguably superior (no mouse pad required!), beloved by a few weirdos, but never a mainstream hit (except, of course, when mounted inside a Missile Command console). I count myself among the weirdos--I used a wonderfully ambidextrous, sturdy Kensington Expert Mouse like this one for years. It's a testament to the universal acceptance of Engelbart's invention that Kensington calls this device a mouse even though it isn't one. (Kensington makes a modern version to this day.) (Image from Leedsmet.)

First Apple iMac Mouse

I never actually used the infamous hockey-puck mouse included with Apple's first iMac, so I refuse to trash it here: It's just barely possible that it wasn't as hideous as its reputation would suggest. But let the record show that my pal Dan Tynan named it as a (dis)honorable mention when he wrote about the 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.

Logitech Concept Mouse

This skinny Logitech concept mouse had dual sensors, allowing it to zoom and rotate simultaneously. It was way too complicated to sell well–-a fact that Logitech realized before it ever got out of the labs, thank goodness.

Contour Designs Left-Handed Mouse

If you worked with me at PC World at any time from about 1998 until earlier this year, you saw my trusty, indestructible Contour Designs medium-size left-handed mouse--a serial-port ancestor of these current models. I'm not so sure about all of Contour's ergonomic innovations, but the company has my undying gratitude for acknowledging the existence of left-handed people--and with mice in three different sizes, yet. (You right-handers get four sizes, but who ever said life was fair?)

Apple MacBook Pro Touchpad

If you've been using laptops since the early 1990s or so, you remember when they didn't have pointing devices--because many folks didn't need 'em. Odd clip-on trackballs followed, and then laptop manufacturers started building trackballs into their machines. Some other strange dead ends came out--does anyone besides me remember the J-Mouse or the HP OmniBook with a pop-out micromouse? But manufacturers eventually settled on the touchpad (nearly pervasive today and highly evolved, as in the Apple MacBook Pro above) and the ThinkPad-style Trackpoint (less common, but still around). I'm fine with either option, but an awful lot of people shun both in favor of traveling with an undersized mouse that's far closer to the one that Douglas Engelbart designed decades ago.

Logitech MX Revolution Mouse

Many of today's mice--such as this Logitech MX Revolution--bear about as much resemblance to Engelbart's 1968 model as a 2009 Lexus sedan does to a Model T. They sport myriad "ergonomic" designs, scroll wheels of multiple sorts, optical or laser tracking at absurd resolutions, and fancy materials and textures, and they've shed their tails in favor of wireless technology. But you know what? In the end, they do exactly what Engelbart's first mouse did: allow you to move a cursor around the screen and press buttons to initiate actions. Engelbart's patent ran out before mice became big business, so his invention didn't make him a zillionaire. All it did was make computing a lot more personal and intuitive--and it shows every sign of continuing to do so for a long time to come.

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