Recent Changes and Influences in the Mouse’s Design: Post Engelbart

April 3, 2017 | | Comments Off on Recent Changes and Influences in the Mouse’s Design: Post Engelbart

Since the mouse’s initial development in the early 1960’s, it has been constantly undergoing changes that have enabled its style to evolve with the times. The mouse has grown into a natural feature of the computer desk, right next to the keyboard and monitor. As we all know them today, computer mice are characteristically made of plastic, even though this was not the case initially. As the mouse’s design was amended from Engelbart’s model, then to Xerox and finally Apple, it has made a slow and steady progression towards a more ergonomically sound design based on point-and-click Graphical User Interface interaction.

“The how many buttons does your mouse have poll.” Digital Image. McNeel Forums. August, 2016. March 16, 2017.

The original design for the mouse was mechanically designed by Engelbart, however made into tangible form by his colleague Bill English. English’s prototype featured a large wooden box that could fit in the palm of one’s hand, a button for selecting images on the screen near the top, and in the words of  Paul Atkinson,”wheels attached to internal potentiometers” [1]. First made of wood, this design was expensive and difficult to reproduce. Therefore, as Engelbart was designing his “text based operating system” called “Augment”, he and English instead offered up a “three-button mouse” to accompany the system in 1968, made of plastic [2]. However, since most text based programs were falling out of vogue, and icon-based operating systems became increasingly popular, the mouse earned its new purpose for being a point and click device [3]. At this point in time, 1971, Bill English, as well as mouse research and development “left the Stanford Research Institute to join Xerox” [4]. While there, “English worked with Jack Hawley, developing a version which replaced two wheels of his first mouse prototype with a single steel ball…to execute point-and-click operations” [5]. The steel ball allowed for a wider range and freedom of movement as the cursor navigated the icons on the computer screens. Nevertheless, this mouse model was far from perfect. Not only was it highly expensive to produce, “between $350 to $400,” they were also far too difficult to mass produce because “the interior steel ball…had to be precisely aligned with internal rollers and springs”, which required individual hand constructed care [6]. Not to mention, dirt could also get trapped in the rolling ball and ruin the mouse’s ability to function properly. If the mouse wanted to have a shot at ever being an accessible piece of technology, there would need to be a major change in design and materials. That is exactly what Apple Computers strove to do.

Steve Jobs showed great initial interest in the mouse as a possible piece of technology to accompany his computers, however their traditional designs and materials had often made them far too expensive and difficult to replicate on a mass scale.According to Stanford graduate Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Jobs enlisted the help of “two-year-old start up” Hovey-Kelley Design Team to create a mouse that was cheaper and simpler to produce [7]. Some of the revisions they made to the Xerox mouse was the replacement of the “load-bearing steel ball” with a “floating lead ball covered in rubber”, an injection-molded “rib cage” which located and held all of the key components of the mouse together in their precise locations [8], and the reduction of the “number of buttons from three to one”[9]. The key to the ease of mass-producing this mouse was the idea that this ‘ribcage’ could be “mass produced”, once “the mold was made…to the exacting tolerances…for pennies a unit” [10]. Instead of costing a couple hundred dollars to produce the computer mouse, it now cost less than $20 [11]. The mouse had finally been given a viable shot at becoming a part of our everyday lives.

Over time, other companies such as Logitech and Evoluent have sought out ways to create a better, more ergonomically structured mouse design. While Apple stayed true to its “rectilinear forms”, their competitors were looking for better ways to address the rising issue of Repetitive Stress Injury in avid computer users [12]. Some examples of alternative designs for the mouse include the “Evoluent Vertical Mouse” with buttons and scroll wheel on the right side, preventing the user’s arm from having “to twist to use the mouse” [13]. Another modification included the Logitech “trackball mouse” which is a stationary mouse with the buttons of a regular mouse but with a trackball controlled by the user’s thumb [14]. Despite the major design modifications that these companies have attempted to make to the mouse, they still represent the basic tenants of ‘inexpensive’ and ‘easy to mass produce’ that was established in the design of the Apple mouse years ago.

Herrman, John. “Logitech Timeline of Mousery.” Digital Image. Gizmodo. Dec 3, 2008. March 16, 2017.

For most people, this story of how the mouse was designed is never heard. All too often, it is only a part of the larger computer machine, rather than an independent entity. However, this fact that the mouse is so easily forgotten is considered a success. Jim Sachs, one of the founders of Hovey-Kelley, commented that “it’s the peculiar fate of good design to erase traces of itself; bad design is far more noticeable” [15]. With this idea in mind, the mouse continues to connect both young and old to the digital world through the most organic motion of point-and-click.

1. Paul Atkinson. “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The Computer Mouse in the History of Computing.” Design Issues 23, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 49-61,47.
2.Ibid, 48.
3.Ibid, 49.
4.Ibid, 50.
5.Ibid, 50.
6.Ibid, 51.
7. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. “Mighty Mouse.” Stanford Magazine,March/April 2002. Accessed February 20, 2017.
8.Paul Atkinson. “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The Computer Mouse in the History of Computing.”, 51.
9. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. “Mighty Mouse.”
10. Ibid.
11. Paul Atkinson. “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The Computer Mouse in the History of Computing.”, 51.
12. Ibid, 52.
13. Katie Beaver, Mohit Mehendale, Cy Abdelnour, and Curtis Sawdon. “Designing an Ergonomic Computer Mouse.” Univeristy of Michigan, 2011. Accessed March 16, 2017., 4.
14. Ibid, 5.
15. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.”Mighty Mouse.”