Geek Trivia: Pointer of origin

What was the suggested alternative name for the "X-Y position indicator for a display system," commonly called a mouse?

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

For those of you not accessing this column using shortcut keys, touch screens, or voice-recognition interfaces, reading today's Geek Trivia is possible thanks to a critical computer peripheral that went on sale 24 years ago. On April 27, 1981, the first commercial computer mouse debuted as an included component of the Xerox Star 8010 personal computer. So, in many respects, April 27 is the "birthday" of the computer mouse.

In many respects, that is, but not every—the mouse that shipped with the Star 8010 was almost 20 years in the making. In fact, several versions of working mice were in use before the first commercial model ever went on sale.

If you wanted to suggest an alternative birthday for the mouse, you could make a strong argument for Nov. 17, 1970, when Douglas Engelbart received U.S. Patent 3,541,541 for his design of an "X-Y Position Indicator For A Display System." On paper, this is when the mouse began its legally recognized life.

Of course, most of us recognize that just as technology exists before it comes to market, technology also exists long before it's ready for a patent (to say nothing of how much time the patent application and approval process requires). Thus, one could lobby for yet another mouse birthday: Dec. 9, 1968.

On this date, Engelbart unveiled the mouse as part of a 90-minute demonstration of the oN-Line System (NLS), a GUI-based collaborative computing system developed by Engelbart's design teams at the Stanford Research Institute's Augmentation Research Center. This presentation, viewed by many as the first practical implementation of hypertext as well as a key moment in the history of computing, showed the academic world what the mouse could do.

Perhaps more accurately, the NLS demo was the mouse's coming-out party, rather than its birthday. Like many inventions, the first working mouse was a product of extensive design revision and usability testing. As such, there is no clear-cut date to designate as the day the mouse was "born." Suffice it to say, Engelbart finalized his first mouse design in 1963, meaning that mouse technology is more than four decades old.

Indeed, one can't even point to the day the mouse received its name—because that happened twice. While mouse is now the preferred verbal shorthand for an X-Y position indicator for a display system, another nickname emerged during the mouse's developmental years, one that would be mildly ironic if it were still in use today.


What was the suggested alternative name for Douglas Engelbart's "X-Y position indicator for a display system," commonly called a mouse?

As promised, that other nickname was mildly ironic. During its early development, Engelbart's research teams also called his invention a bug.

While almost every commercially sold computer has its quirks and flaws, it's doubtful that anyone would want to buy a PC that literally came with its own bug, especially since the first computer to come with one—the aforementioned Xerox Star 8010—sold for a hefty $16,000. Thus, it's pretty easy to see why mouse won out over bug as the X-Y indicator's favored nickname.

Still, if you were to lay eyes on that first mouse that Engelbart demonstrated in 1968, the term buggy might not be too far from your mind. The "original" mouse was made of wood; a hollow wooden block covered two perpendicular wheels, which translated x- and y-axis motion into electronic signals.

A simple raised, round button the size of a mini-marshmallow completed the design. (Yes, Macintosh fans, the first mouse was a one-button affair.) For all its potential, that first mouse was grossly unsophisticated compared to today's models.

Moreover, for all his influence, it was not Engelbart who created the now familiar mouse ball—that needs-to-be-cleaned component of many modern mice that more accurately "captures" mouse movement. That distinction goes to Xerox developer Bill English, a member of the famous Xerox PARC research team, who designed the first mouse ball in 1970.

The PARC version of the mouse is perhaps the most influential, designed for complementary, intermittent use with a conventional QWERTY keyboard, as opposed to Engelbart's original notion of an always-in-use mouse paired with a one-handed mini-keyboard.

Two Swiss scientists, Jean-Daniel Nicoud and Andre Guignard (the former a professor and the latter an engineer and precision watchmaker), are responsible for refining the PARC design into its modern form. Their work, sponsored by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, would lead directly to the formation of contemporary mouse manufacturer Logitech. From a buggy box to a multinational super-business, the computer mouse makes for some pointed Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the April 6 edition of Geek Trivia, "The never-ending pastry." TechRepublic member Snewell shared an anecdote that seems to refute the Hostess Twinkie's ostensible 25-day shelf life.

"I can't help but wonder if any of you out there [is] aware that a teacher (recently retired) from Blue Hill, Maine, has kept a Twinkie for 30 years on top of his blackboard to test its shelf life. 'It's rather brittle, but if you dusted it off, it's probably still edible,' [the teacher] said. 'It never spoiled.' If you wish, check out the link."

I'm not sure if I'd be willing to test the edibility of a three-decade-old Twinkie, but if it's good enough for you, dear reader, who am I to quibble?

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.