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EDITIONS
Monday, 5 November, 2001, 08:38 GMT
Mouse inventor strives for more
Doug Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (right) winning the Lovelace Award
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

If you had invented something that was used every day by millions of people and had changed the way we all interacted with computers, you would feel pleased that you had achieved something in your lifetime.

Not so if you are the man who created the computer mouse, Dr Douglas Engelbart.

"It's strange because I've had my eye set on something way beyond that. It's sort of a disappointment that the world and I haven't yet got further," he told the BBC programme Go Digital.

This mild-mannered computer scientist has received widespread recognition for his contribution to the technology that has revolutionised the way the world communicates.

Last week, he added the British Computer Society's Lovelace Medal to his long list of honours.

Changing the world

Yet his technological innovations over the past 30 years have failed to take him to the top of the silicon heap. But Dr Engelbart does not seem to be bitter.

One of the members of the team nicknamed the device a mouse and it caught on. We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name, but it didn't

Douglas Engelbart
"It's very different if your goal had been to get patents and be the first," he says. "But the goal is how do we change the world so that we are collectively more capable of dealing with complex and urgent problems?"

It all began when he started thinking about "how could a person invest their professional career to maximise their return to mankind?" he says.

"If you really believe that, what kind of a citizen would you be if you didn't try to do something about that?" he asks.

Mouse origins

Even back in the 1950s, Dr Engelbart had a vision of how computers could be used to magnify human intelligence.

Cat playuing with a computer mouse
Not that kind of mouse
In the 1960s, at Stanford Research Institute, he and his team developed a set of tools to harness the growing power of computers.

"I'd been trying for many years in the early 1960s to get interactive computers to support individuals," he says.

One of the ideas was a way of allowing people to interact with a computer screen. Dr Engelbart recalls some of his team's early ideas.

"We had a big heavy tracking ball, it was like a cannonball. We had several gadgets that ended up with pivots you could move around. We had a light panel you had to hold up right next to the screen so the computer could see it. And a joystick that you wiggle around to try to steer things."

In the end, the mouse won all the tests for speed and accuracy. At the time it was called an x-y position indicator.

As fast as we get better, we are going to get better at getting better

Douglas Engelbart
"One of the members of the team nicknamed the device a mouse and it caught on," says Dr Engelbart.

"We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name, but it didn't."

As well as the ever present mouse, his team developed hypertext linking, the integration of text and graphics, networking, a web-style browser and even video conferencing.

Radical innovations

Throughout his life, Dr Engelbart has sought ways to improve the tools used for computing.

Man using a mouse
Device used by millions
"I happen to feel that we could be more effective in the way we use the computer," he says, developing "a whole different sort of language that could be a lot more efficient at connecting to our minds."

One of his innovations was a chordal keyboard, invented more than 30 years ago. Designed to be used with the mouse, the chordal keyboard allows users to type all the letters of the alphabet with just one hand.

In contrast to the mouse, the chordal keyboard never caught the public's imagination.

Today, through the Bootstrap Institute and its offshoot, the Bootstrap Alliance, Dr Engelbart is exploring the best way to network our collective brain power to improve the way organisations communicate and solve problems.

"If we don't learn how to solve them, it's very likely that our society will crash," he warns. "As fast as we get better, we are going to get better at getting better."

See also:

10 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
10 May 00 | Science/Nature
12 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
11 Jun 01 | dot life
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