Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 132 / AUGUST 1991 / PAGE 52

The tale of the mouse. (mouse devices)
by Robert Bixby

Where did mice come from? They have become so popular so quickly that it might seem they came out of the woodwork. But it was a bit more complicated than that ...

The mouse actually evolved from a philosophy that computing should be interactive--a revolutionary notion, in fact.

It might seem incredible to think so now, but there was a time when even an intense computer user would have only a passing familiarity with the hardware. In 1978, for example, may wife was attempting to run a criminology study using the campus mainframe at Central Michigan University. She had to submit programs to the system operator in batch format on printed cards, wait overnight, and then retrieve a printout (usually full of mysterious error messages) the next day. It took her all semester to get it to run properly, and even at that, she was the first person in the class to succeed.

Being able to interact with a computer in realtime, through the use of a terminal or by actually having a microcomputer on the desk in front of you, is really nothing short of revolutionary, when you consider how awkward it once was to "run" a computer.

But once it was possible to interact directly, the keyboard instantly seemed inadequate. After all, the computer could easily cope with our input even if we could type thousands of words a minute. Your computer spends most of its time patiently waiting for you to press another key when you're word processing or programming or giving your computer commands on the command line.

At the same time that computers were becoming more democratic and interactive, new ways of looking at files were emerging. Files began to be thought of not as interminable strips of code on tapes or disks but as objects that could be manipulated. You could pick up a file here and place it there, copy it in a moment, and start up the application that created it by performing a command on the file itself. Shortly thereafter, these objects began to be thought of as objects, and soon as visual objects--actual rectangles on the screen. They cried out for some easy way to manipulate them, to move them around. This was the impetus behind the creation of a mouselike input device. It was equipped with a roller underneath, two switches, and a long cord that carried its impulses to the computer. Because of its size and shape, with switches a little like ears and a cord a lot like a tail, the device was dubbed the mouse.

But so far, the mouse was a meek and little-noticed creature. It scurried around desk tops at a research facility operated by Xerox: the Palo Alto Research Center, known familiarly as PARC.

Those were exciting, freewheeling times. Microcomputers were just appearing on the market. The concept of trade secrets was still largely a thing of the future, and the close-knit microcommunity members (many of whom had met as minicomputer hackers, homebrew computerists, and phone phreaks) were proud to show off their latest developments to friends and competitors alike. One fellow who took the cook's tour of Xerox PARC was Steve Jobs, then the head chutzpa at Apple Computer. He liked what he saw, as was evident in the Lisa computer, which took many of the ideas Xerox had introduced on its own failed computer, the Star. Lisa also managed to fail, probably because she was extremely overpriced (at $10,000) and moderately underpowered. One thing everyone could agree on, though, was that the operating system and the innovation of the mouse (provided with each Lisa) made file management a breeze.

Little wonder that when Jobs came out with the Macintosh, a computer that was only moderately overpriced (but made up for it by being extremely underpowered), he continued to provide the mouse. Yuppies bought Macintoshes by the bushel, and the rest is history.

Microsoft created Windows to provide a mousedriven, graphical interface for the PC. Thereafter, no computer could be taken seriously unless it had a mouse. Even the waning 8-bit computers were dutifully outfitted with mice. Within a period of about three years, mice had completely saturated the market, changing the way people interact with and think about computers forever. Mice have led the graphical revolution, in essence allowing the user not only to interact directly with the computer but to reach inside the computer and manipulate files. What's the difference between entering ERASE filename.ext on the command line and sliding a file icon in the trash can? Simply, a mouse and a mouse-based operating system.