The computer mouse, like so many other aspects of the modern personal computer, had its origins in technologies developed for military purposes during the 1940s (during or around World War II), was further developed by teams of researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) during the 1960s and ‘70s, and only became a successful commercial product after it was included in the first Apple Macintosh in 1984.
The first mouse-like device, the trackball, was invented by a British scientist, working at the British Royal Navy Scientific Service in 1946.
It was designed to replace the joystick as the main input device for one of the navy’s radar systems. No functioning prototype of this trackball was ever built, however, and the device was kept secret by the military.
The first functioning trackball prototype came about in 1952, meanwhile; it was built by a British engineer for an innovative radar system for the Royal Canadian Navy that would combine radar and sonar data from multiple sources into a single system that all ships could access. This trackball was comparable to an upside-down, vintage trackball mouse.
The ball—which in the prototype was a Canadian five pin bowling ball, an object that’s about the size of a grapefruit—rested inside a structure that contained rollers, four discs (two on each X and Y axis), and wires.
To use the device, the user would roll the ball inside the structure, causing the discs to rotate and strike the wires; the radar system would then convert the data from the wires into the user’s onscreen movements.
Despite the trackball device and the radar system itself performing as intended during test runs, though, they were both scrapped due to lack of funding and their development, like the earlier trackball mouse, was kept secret.
The first computer mouse that resembled a modern-day computer mouse—and also the first mouse-like device to be used with a general purpose computer—was developed by researchers at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s.
For registering movement, this mouse had two discs—one for the X axis and one for the Y axis—inside of a boxy wooden frame. From the user’s perspective, using this mouse involved moving the entire device itself, rolling it along a flat surface—a key departure from the trackball, which required the user to manipulate an object within the device, while the device itself remained stationary.
The mouse also had a single button on top of it (towards the front, and to the right) and a cord running out of the back of it, whose tail-like appearance was the inspiration for the device’s name. The first prototype was built in 1963, and SRI demonstrated the device to the public for the first time in 1968.
The SRI mouse went on to inspire the mice of the Xerox Alto (1973), the world’s first mouse-driven PC, and the Xerox Star (1981), the world’s first commercially-available mouse-driven PC—which in turn inspired the world’s first commercially-successful mouse-driven PC, the Apple Macintosh 128K (1984).
One of the differences between the SRI mouse and the Alto, Star, and Macintosh mice were that the latter three were trackball mice—or upside-down, encased trackballs, which relied on rollers, discs, light, and sensors to translate the mice’s movements into movements onscreen.
So how did these three mice become trackball mice when the earlier trackballs were still military secrets and the SRI mouse used rotating discs?
For one, a German electronics company called Telefunken developed a single-button trackball mouse as an optional peripheral for its computers in 1968, apparently without any knowledge of the mid-century trackballs.
Separately, Bill English, who built the original SRI mouse prototype and who had moved on to Xerox PARC, invented a trackball mouse of his own in 1972—which then led to the trackball mice of the Alto and Star computers.
Most computer mice in use today are neither disc-based or trackball mice, of course—the majority of them are optical mice, which don’t require any mechanical parts, just light, sensors, and image-processing chips, to register movement.
Optical mice first emerged from R&D labs in the early 1980s, but the technology only became affordable to the average consumer in the late 1990s.
Finally, the first commercially-available wireless mouse, the Logitech Mouseman Cordless, came out in 1991, and the first commercially-available mouse with a scroll wheel, the Genius EasyScroll, was released in 1995.
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