Computers

Ground-breaking Engelbart 3-button computer mouse goes to auction

Ground-breaking Engelbart 3-bu...
The Engelbart mouse is the nacestor of modern computer mice
The Engelbart mouse is the nacestor of modern computer mice
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The Engelbart mouse is the nacestor of modern computer mice
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The Engelbart mouse is the nacestor of modern computer mice
The Engelbart mouse had three buttons instead of two
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The Engelbart mouse had three buttons instead of two
The Engelbart mouse used two metal wheels rather than a ball or an optical sensor
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The Engelbart mouse used two metal wheels rather than a ball or an optical sensor
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A very rare piece of computer history is up for grabs at RR Auctions. The early three-button "X-Y" mouse, designed by computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart, is the direct ancestor of today's ubiquitous computer mouse and was made famous when it was first presented to the public at the "Mother of All Demos" on December 9, 1968.

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart caused a sensation when he and 17 other researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute made a 90-minute presentation for about 1,000 computer scientists. At this meeting, Engelbart and company introduced a raft of computer features, including video conferencing, teleconferencing, screen sharing, email, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, a collaborative real-time editor ... and the first mouse.

The mouse was invented by Englebart when he was a Director of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and was built by his colleague William (Bill) English in 1964. It was developed as part of a NASA-funded project to produce a more efficient computer interface that would allow users to easily solve very complex problems.

In the early 1960s, controlling a cursor on a screen or some other part of early graphic user interfaces involved devices like trackballs, light pens, joysticks, and others that were often slow and tiring to use. After testing the existing designs, Engelbart came up with a small wooden box with a button on top and a cord to connect it to a workstation. Inside the block were two metal wheels at right angles to one another to form the X-Y axis.

The Engelbart mouse used two metal wheels rather than a ball or an optical sensor
The Engelbart mouse used two metal wheels rather than a ball or an optical sensor

The mouse was patented by Engelbart on behalf of SRI in 1967 and an improved version with a plastic case and three buttons was incorporated into a production workstation. In 1973 it was incorporated into the Xerox Alto computer, but it wasn't until the rise of personal computers like the Apple Macintosh that the mouse became popular. Though Apple licensed Engelbart's mouse patent from SRI for around $40,000, the inventor didn't receive any money from the deal.

The Engelbart mouse being auctioned was presented by Engelbart to former InfoWorld editor, Logitech PR director and photographer, Serge Timacheff. The remarkably rare device isn't functional because its cord was cut short so it could be used as a desk display.

The Engelbart mouse had three buttons instead of two
The Engelbart mouse had three buttons instead of two

"While at Logitech, another industry visionary who consulted with the company was Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the mouse," says Timacheff in a provenance letter. "His original patent was filed in 1967 for an 'X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System' and introduced at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, Calif…. While I was at Logitech, Mr. [Pierluigi] Zappacosta gave Mr. Engelbart free office space in our Fremont, California headquarters for his 'Bootstrap Institute' (later to be called the 'Douglas Engelbart Institute'), a technology consulting firm. His offices were just a few doors down from mine, and he and I struck a friendship where we would frequently discuss pointing devices, I would get advice from him about our latest products, and we’d discuss and debate interesting topics about consumer technology. At that point, Logitech had already sold millions of mice, something he expressed to me as 'astounding.' During the course of our friendship, Mr. Engelbart appeared in my office one day with a gift: 'I thought you might like to have one of my first mice,' he said. The interesting thing about the mouse was more than the X-Y axis design (which later became a ball, and then replaced by laser/light), it was also that the original mouse had three buttons. This was something we were touting at the time in our Logitech devices, while many of the other manufacturers such as Microsoft and Apple deemed superfluous and felt one or at most two buttons would be all anyone ever needed; of course, today, mice have many buttons and features to allow a variety of macro and chording controls to aid in navigation and functionality. I’ve had the mouse on my desk ever since."

The online auction is scheduled for December 17, 2020. The price estimate is set at US$800, which seems to us like a huge bargain.

Source: RR Auction

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Bob Munck
I got to try Doug's first mouse somewhat before the Mother of All Demos; we (Andy van Dam's people) were working with his group on developing hypertext systems. (Ted Nelson was at Brown working with us, though he wasn't much use.) The first mouse had one button and the second one had three. It was meant to be used with a five-key chord keyboard that allowed you to type 8-bit ASCII without moving your fingers horizontally. I always liked that idea, but Doug was the only person I ever saw make it work; he could type upwards of 30 words per minute and it was kind of spooky for him to be sitting there not moving except for finger twitches.

BTW, in later years I had an Alto while working on a PARC project. It really was a PC, albeit one implemented as a minicomputer. That little 606x808 display was a revelation. (I'm typing this on a 3840x2160 display, one of two.) The Alto, and I, were the 35th users of Ethernet in the world.