Lost in Cyberspace
The Mouse that Roared
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

A symposium was held in Palo Alto recently to mark the 30th anniversary of a revelation. On Dec. 9, 1968, a middle-aged computer geek at Stanford University, Doug Engelbart, gave a stunning demonstration of computer word processing, video conferencing and hyperlinks. At a time when computers were as big as closets but could do little more than crunch numbers, with tubes instead of transistors and punch cards instead of diskettes, he showed how people sitting at separate work stations could view, modify and jump from document to document much like Web surfers do today.

Central to Engelbart's demonstration was an ungainly computer accessory he had invented -- a button attached to a block of wood that, like a bad shopping cart, slid across the desktop on two wheels headed in different directions. Moving the block of wood caused a cursor to move over little pictures on a computer screen, and clicking on the pictures caused the computer to perform various functions. Engelbart's invention became known as the mouse, and the pictures on the screen as a graphical user interface, or GUI, pronounced "gooey." Together, they made computers accessible to the masses.

Ironically, "community computing," not personal computers, was what Engelbart had in mind when he unveiled his vision of the future to fellow computer nerds 30 years ago. A synergistic global village where people linked by computers worked together to solve the world's problems. While the world's problems are still here, many of his ideas have become part of the very infrastructure of cyberspace, and none more than the mouse.

Before the mouse, the only way to operate a computer was by typing in text-based commands, or use the arrow keys to guide a cursor down a menu and hit the return key. There is little that a GUI can do that a text-based operating system cannot, and to this day many computer geeks prefer Microsoft's text-based DOS computer language to its GUI Windows operating system. However, most computer users lack the patience to learn more than the most basic computer commands. But with a mouse and GUI, they no longer have to know computer language, so practically anyone can operate a computer.

Another Engelbart invention, the hyperlink, is also made easier with a mouse. Imagine trying to click on a text link in a Web page without a mouse -- you would have to use your arrow keys to scroll down line by line and then across letter by letter until you reached the right place on the page. With a mouse all you have to do is roll over your mousepad and click.

Nothing much came of Engelbart's research until government funding ran out in 1977, and many of his engineers joined Xerox's Palo Alto Research Laboratory, where Apple co-founder Steve Jobs saw a machine using his ideas during a tour. In 1983, the mouse and GUI finally became available to consumers in Apple's Macintosh computer. Even then, the mouse wasn't recognized for being much more than a novelty or convenience until Bill Gates and Microsoft created their own GUI operating system, which they called Windows.

Neither Jobs nor Gates saw the networking potential of Engelbart's inventions. But Steve Case did, and used a mouse and GUI to transform electronic bulletin boards into the online community America Online. And over the past decade, people like Marc Andreessen at Netscape have used hypertext to power the browsers -- and e-commerce -- of the World Wide Web.

Like many inventors, it has taken years for Engelbart to receive his due credit, while others have made billions off his ideas. The mouse, GUI, hypertext and all his other inventions became the property of his employer, the Stanford Research Institute, which some years later compensated him with a check for $10,000. To date, more than 350 million computer mice have been sold.

But in April he was the recipient of the largest prize for scientific innovation in the U.S., the half-million-dollar Lemelson-MIT Prize, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. And in September he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame <www.invent.org>.

Information on the 30th anniversary symposium, sponsored by the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank, and Stanford University's Silicon Valley Archive, can be found at "Engelbart's Unfinished Revolution" <unrev.stanford.edu>. The symposium was sponsored by the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank, and Stanford University's Silicon Valley Archives, which is collecting a history of the Silicon Valley and presenting it at such websites as "MouseSite" <sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite>, an archive of "community memory" reconstructing the efforts of Engelbart and others at the Stanford Research Institute to "recast the computer as a communication device that would augment the human intellect rather than simply execute calculations."

And Engelbart, 73, continues to keep his community computing vision alive through the Bootstrap Institute <www.bootstrap.org>, a government think tank on a quest "to form strategic alliances aimed at dramatically improving organizations and society at large."
© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.