WASHINGTON – Doug Engelbart, a computer science visionary who was credited with inventing the mouse, the now-ubiquitous device that first allowed people to navigate virtual desktops with clicks and taps, died Tuesday at his home in Atherton, California. He was 88.
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where he had been a fellow since 2005, confirmed the death.
At a time when computers were the size of Buicks and ran on punch cards, Engelbart led a team of researchers who conceived seminal ideas that helped build the modern computer industry and allowed the machines to become a staple of work and home life. “With his help, the computer has become a friendly servant rather than a stern taskmaster,” the noted economist Lester Thurow said in 1997.
In addition to the mouse, Engelbart and his colleagues developed the concept of digital work spaces, now called windows, hypertext to conjoin digital files, and shared-screen teleconferencing.
Engelbart carried out much of his work in Menlo Park, California, working from 1957 to 1977 at the Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI International). He was regarded as an eminence in his profession who inspired generations of computer scientists, but he did not have the household name recognition of other early personal-technology innovators, such as Steve Jobs, whose company made the mouse a commercial success.
In 2000, Engelbart received the National Medal of Technology, America’s highest award in that field. “More than any other person,” the citation read, “he created the personal computing component of the computer revolution.”
Perhaps no better illustration can be found of Engelbart’s egalitarian and utilitarian vision for the computer than his landmark 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” In it, he described an architect drafting on a computer screen: “He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his ‘clerk’) with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices.”
At the time, the workplace description was a postcard from the future. While the paper intrigued the Defense Department, which provided him funding, his peers sometimes brushed off his talk of interactive computing, and his “think pieces” occasionally left colleagues baffled.
Engelbart began work on another futuristic concept, the mouse, in 1964 after he built an $80,000 monitor and figured he needed a device to interact with the screen. He had served in the navy during World War II as a radar operator and recalled using a light pen — a type of stylus fitted with a photocell — to control a cathode-ray tube, the technology that powered radar systems and early televisions. He theorized that a similar setup would work for the computer monitor.
With fellow SRI engineer William English, Engelbart tested all of the pointing gadgets available at the time and decided a contraption that would roll around on a desktop was fastest and most accurate. Working with English, he developed a thick wooden block that rolled on metal wheels and connected to the computer via a cord.
Officially, the device was called the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” but Engelbart’s lab dubbed it the “mouse” for its tail-like cord.
“We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name,” Engelbart said later. “But it didn’t.”
Engelbart was not impressed with Apple’s adjustments to his invention, which originally had three buttons (Linux and other Unix-like systems still do).
“Apple people so smugly said one [button] is what you need,” he later told the Toronto Star. “That’s like saying I’m going to chop off three fingers on my hand because they are superfluous.”