SLIDESHOW

The irrepressible evolution of the PC mouse

A half-century old and still going strong, the mouse has seen its ups and downs. Here's its history, from inauspicious beginnings to the essential peripheral we use today.

The unstoppable peripheral

Ubiquity, thy name is mouse.

There's Mighty. There's Mickey. And don't forget the proverbial girl next door. The stereotype says she's attractive, but also a tad bit mousey.

And then there's that other mouse—the computer mouse. It's now so integral to our daily lives, you scarcely give it a second thought—unless, of course, you're a gamer, a graphic artist, or anyone who craves the aptitude of a seriously high-end specimen.

The computer mouse has come a long way—just take a gander at the exorbitantly over-engineered R.A.T. 7 gaming mouse to the left—and its historical milestones are plentiful. Let's check out a few of the most notable.

X-Y position indicator for a display system

In 1957, Douglas Engelbart, Ph.D., was merely a bright, enthusiastic engineer who'd only recently taken a position at the Stanford Research Institute. Six years later—in 1963, at precisely the same time The Beach Boys dropped Surfin' USA—Englebart had invented a tracking device he would eventually patent as "X-Y Position Indicator For A Display System."

Sporting two perpendicular discs to monitor movement, two corresponding potentiometers, a single top-mounted button, and a hand-carved wooden case to hold it all together, Engelbart's blocky but ingenious contraption is today considered the world's first mouse—the genesis of all mice to follow.

It wasn't, however, the first commercially available mouse.

Telefunken Rollkugel

Engelbart had not yet publically demoed his X-Y Position Indicator when, in 1968, Berlin electronics powerhouse Telefunken kicked it up a notch, debuting the Rollkugel (Rolling Ball). As the name suggests, it differed substantially from Engelbart's creation by replacing the two-disc tracking system with a concept that would survive for decades going forward—a ball.

But the Rollkugel distinguished itself in another way too. As an optional component in Telefunken's room-filling TR-440 mainframe computer, it soon became the first mouse available in the retail channel.

Just one problem: Telefunken forgot to patent it.

Image: OldMouse.org

Xerox Alto mouse

When discussing mice, one must not ignore Bill English. He was the engineer who helped turn Douglas Engelbart's X-Y Position Indicator vision into reality in the early 1960s, and he'd grab yet another share of history in 1972 when he completed the world's second ball mouse while working with Xerox's famed PARC R&D facility.

So when does coming second propel you into the limelight? In the world of mice, when you pump out a design that rings true even today. You see, whereas Telefunken's first-ever ball mouse looked like an old-school football helmet, the Alto rocked not one but three buttons and a shape that's been borrowed by virtually every mouse since.

Image: ComputerHistory.org

Apple Lisa mouse

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Apple was positively gushing over Xerox's PARC research facility in the late 1970s. It was there that the crack Xerox team had been hunkered down, working on a variety of computing technologies that fit right into Apple's plans for world domination. One of those technologies was Bill English's mouse.

Just four years after its visit to Xerox PARC, Apple had modified—and prettified—the design, axed all but one button, and essentially morphed the still juvenile mouse from lab plaything (and retail curiosity) into a key cog of the Lisa personal computer system. Crazy expensive and very misunderstood, Lisa was far from a success, but the computer mouse had finally been sprung from its cage.

The optical mouse frontlines

The first commercially successful optical mouse didn't appear until the turn of the millennium, but researchers were hot on the wireless trail long before that.

Take Richard Lyon at Xerox. Lyon's concept, born even before ball-based mice had come to market, incorporated an image sensor—essentially a teeny-tiny camera—and integrated motion detection. Heady stuff for 1981. Simultaneously, a bright young fellow by the name of Steve Kirsh slaved over an alternate optical mouse strategy involving infrared LEDs and predictive algorithms. Ultimately Lyon's approach proved enduring, but not before Kirsch's mouse had shipped with a number of computer and software packages. Kirsch would later go on to found Mouse Systems (covered elsewhere in this slideshow) and the once-trendy search engine Infoseek.

Image: Renoir.en.kku.ac.th

The Metaphor mouse

Xerox's PARC would once again play a role in the evolution of the mouse when, in the early 1980s, its Metaphor Computer Systems offshoot unveiled an advanced workstation computer called, appropriately enough, the Metaphor workstation.

The Metaphor was way cool because several of its components—keyboard, keypad, and, yes, even a mouse—communicated with one another wirelessly. Indeed, the Metaphor mouse was built by a young upstart called Logitech and is now considered the first commercially available cordless mouse. Unfortunately, the Metaphor suffered from an affliction that would plague several cordless mice to follow: Its IR technology required a clear line-of-sight between transmitter and receiver. Not the best setup in a typically chaotic workspace.

Image: Michael Trigoboff/PCC.edu

Mouse Systems ProAgio

Mouse trends have come and gone—and often come around again. Can the cordless initiative, for example, be considered all that game-changing when many of today's top-selling mice (and certainly most gaming and high-precision units) remain corded?

The scroll wheel, conversely, was a true stroke of genius. Let's face it—anything that allows us to circumnavigate scroll bars is a stroke of genius. And that stroke hit us in 1995 when California-based Mouse Systems regaled us with its ProAgio scrolling mouse, a multibutton beast that, happily, featured a little wheel right where it always should have been.

Sadly for Mouse Systems, it would take a giant to make us all realize what we'd been missing. (Cue next slide.)

Microsoft IntelliMouse

Just a year after the debut of the virtually ignored ProAgio, Gates and Co. would put all its marketing muscle behind a sleek little offering that was said to be the ultimate solution not only for Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, but for Internet browsing and gaming too. At its heart was a scroll wheel/button combo that quite simply changed the way we control our computing.

Microsoft dubbed its creation the IntelliMouse, and then proceeded to sell kazillions of 'em over the course of the next 17 years.

Razer Boomslang

Talk about your grand entrances. "Gaming" mice didn't exist in 1997. Nor did Razer, the San Francisco-based company now known worldwide for creating some of the sickest mice ever concocted. Just one year later, Razer had formed, and the Razer Boomslang—arguably the world's first-ever hot-rodded gamer mouse—had been unleashed.

Razer PR at the time was filled with all sorts of reasons the Boomslang should be a gamer's very next purchase: Resolution (2000 DPI vs. the 450 DPI of a "standard" mouse), USB vs. PS2 connection, controller chip speed, and so on. Reviewers applauded Razer in many respects, though some found its claims overblown and the Boomslang's $100 price tag egregious. Regardless, the gaming mouse—and Razer—had arrived.

Image: ComputerBase.de

Apple Magic Mouse

Input devices entered a new age with the 2009 arrival of Apple’s Magic Mouse—the first consumer-focused mouse to support multitouch gestures. Swiping, scrolling, two-fingered double tapping, it was all there, and those finger-friendly capabilities have since popped up in Windows 8-optimized mice by manufacturers like Logitech and Microsoft.

The Magic Mouse and its ilk haven't been universally loved, however. While gesture controls are a nice extra touch, the seamless “blank slate” surfaces sometimes eschew traditional mouse functionality—like middle clicks—and simply don’t offer the same precision as traditional mouse controls. BOOM! Body shot.