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Douglas Engelbart, Computer Mouse Creator, Dies at 88

Wednesday, 03 July 2013 05:36 PM EDT

Douglas Engelbart, the visionary electrical engineer who invented the computer mouse decades before the influx of personal computers into homes and workplaces, has died. He was 88.

He died yesterday at his home in Atherton, California, the New York Times reported, citing his wife, Karen O’Leary Engelbart. The cause was kidney failure.

Engelbart’s work at the Stanford Research Institute, today’s SRI International, resulted in 21 patents. The last one, No. 3,541,541, filed in 1967 and granted in 1970, was for the computer mouse, or as it was described in technical terms:

“An X-Y position indicator control for movement by the hand over any surface to move a cursor over the display on a cathode ray tube, the indicator control generating signals indicating its position to cause a cursor to be displayed on the tube at the corresponding position.”

He had devised the palm-sized, wheel-based instrument in 1963 as a way to move a computer-screen cursor by means other than arrows on a keyboard. Other alternatives being weighed at the time were a light-pen pointed at the screen, a tracking ball and a joystick.

“I remember how my head went back to a device called a planimeter,” another wheel-based device used by engineers to measure irregular geometric areas, he recalled in a 1987 oral- history interview with Stanford University Libraries.

His colleague William English, SRI’s chief engineer, led the tinkering and testing of the cursor controller, which was carved from wood and used two perpendicular wheels rather than the roller ball included in subsequent incarnations. English built the first prototype in 1964.

Historic Demo

On Dec. 9, 1968, at a computer conference in San Francisco, Engelbart unveiled his team’s work in a presentation that became known in tech circles as “the mother of all demos.” During the 90-minute session, linked to his lab by a homemade modem, Engelbart showed off then-novel feats including interactive computing, video conferencing, windows display and hypertext -- plus the rectangular, three-button controller he used to control the cursor on the screen.

“I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” he told his audience that day. “Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.”

The rationale for the name, he said in other interviews, was quite simple: the device resembled the rodent, with its cord as a tail. He said nobody on his team could remember who used the term first.

Debut Appearance

The computer mouse burst into public consciousness in the 1980s after being refined at Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center, debuting with little commercial success as part of the Xerox Star computer in 1981, then finally becoming an integral part of computers sold by Apple Inc. and International Business Machines Corp.

Over the next three decades the mouse was offered in a rainbow of colors and in different styles: cordless, optical rather than mechanical, designed for left-handed use, ergonomically correct. Logitech International SA, the world’s biggest computer mouse maker, introduced its first mouse for retail in 1985 and shipped its 500 millionth in 2003 and its billionth in 2008.

“Isn’t that unbelievable?” Engelbart said in a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek, describing his invention’s lasting ubiquity. “My first thought was that you’d think someone would have come up with a more appropriately dignified name for it by now.”

Engineering Revolution

Engelbart earned no royalties from his invention. He did win, in 1997, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, and in 2000, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bill Clinton.

“More than any other person,” said the award citation, “he created the personal computing component of the computer revolution.”

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on Jan. 30, 1925, near Portland, Oregon, the middle child of three of Carl Engelbart, a radio salesman and repairman, and the former Gladys Munson.

After two years of college, he was drafted and spent two years in the U.S. Navy, from 1944 to 1946.

During a layover on the South Pacific island of Leyte, on the way to his posting in the Philippines as an electronic radar technician, Engelbart found a Red Cross library -- “a genuine native hut, up on stilts, with a thatched roof,” he recalled. “You came up a little ladder or stairs, and inside it was very clean and neat. It had bamboo poles and was just really nice looking. There were lots of books, and nobody else there.”

Chance Encounter

It was in that unusual academic venue, he recalled, that he encountered “As We May Think,” an essay in the Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, head of U.S. wartime scientific research and development.

In it, Bush predicted technological advancements that would lead to breakthroughs in human knowledge, including “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library,” on which a person “stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”

Engelbart recalled, “I remember being thrilled. Just the whole concept of helping people work and think that way just excited me.”

Earliest Computers

After the war, he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1948. He spent three years at the federal Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, then four years at the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in engineering and contributed to building one of the earliest digital computers.

According to a biography written by his daughter, Christina Engelbart, by then he was envisioning “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped. Then they would communicate and collectively organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”

Engelbart joined SRI in 1957 and began accumulating patents, some tracing to his graduate work. He became director of the institute’s laboratory, which he named the Augmentation Research Center.

Arpanet Beginnings

In 1962 he produced his own influential paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” for the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, building off Bush’s work of two decades earlier. The paper earned him a share of research funds distributed through the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, first known as ARPA, then DARPA.

The Engelbart-led lab at SRI contributed to creation of the Arpanet computer network, a predecessor of the Internet.

In 1988, Engelbart left his research job at McDonnell Douglas Corp. and, with daughter Christina, set up a nonprofit foundation to advocate his ideas for improving collective knowledge. The foundation started as the Bootstrap Institute and in 2008 became the Doug Engelbart Institute.

Engelbart had four children -- daughters Gerda, Diana and Christina, and son Norman -- with his first wife, the former Ballard Fish, who died in 1997. He married the former Karen O’Leary in 2008.

--Editors: Steven Gittelson, Charles w. Stevens

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at

© Copyright 2024 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

Douglas Engelbart, the visionary electrical engineer who invented the computer mouse decades before the influx of personal computers into homes and workplaces, has died. He was 88.
Wednesday, 03 July 2013 05:36 PM
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