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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

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.