The mouse may not be the sexiest piece of office equipment, but it’s still part of our everyday lives. As much as we would like to make our lives nothing but touchscreens and gestures, the humble mouse has a place in our everyday routine, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a well-thought-out piece of equipment that we all know how to use.
Of course, it was not always so. It must come as a surprise to our younger readers that there was a time when businesspeople actually took classes to understand how to use a mouse, and before that there was a decade when desktop computers did just fine without them.
The invention of the mouse itself is commonly credited to Douglas Englebart, a researcher who designed the very first mouse to try to explore new ways of interacting with computers. It was not shown outside a lab until 1968 and was not used in any practical device until 1973. The first mice were mechanical; a rubber ball tracked against a surface (like a desk) and also against a trio of wheels, which spun at different speeds depending on the direction and speed the mouse was moving. Three mechanical sensors, essentially miniature speedometers, were attached to these wheels and comparing their readings allowed a computer to determine what direction the mouse was moving. It was a triumph of engineering but as with all things mechanical, it was also a little bit of a mess.
Mice came to personal computing in the mid-1980s but early mice were hard to use and required frequent cleaning. They also had only one button, the second button being added by Microsoft in the late 1980s to differentiate its products from rival Apple.
The biggest improvement in mousing technology came with the introduction of the optical mouse in the 1990s. using an optical sensor to determine motion made it possible to have mice that were more reliable and required less cleaning. Eventually this technology improved to the point where today’s mice actually use low-res digital cameras to determine movements, making them incredibly precise.
Along the way, of course, the mouse lost its tail as wireless ones overtook wired ones, and some mice today use touch-sensitive surfaces in lieu of wheels or buttons, making them more like trackpads than anything else. It’s also worth noting that the same mechanical technology that spawned the mouse also spawned its upside-down cousin the trackball, essentially a mouse where the user manipulates the ball directly with his or her fingers. These were popular choices in the 1990s but have largely faded out of view.
Today, it’s possible to get a mouse for under $10 and they’re found everywhere from drugstores to high-end electronics stores. Very few devices have achieved the level of success of the mouse, and it all began because someone invented it.