November 17, 1970: US Patent # 3,541,541 is granted to SRI International. Dr. Douglas Engelbart from SRI is an American inventor, geek, and philosopher of sorts. He reasoned that like a language’s complexity limits the expression of ideas, so too technology’s complexity or lack thereof limits our ability to manipulate information. He therefore invented ways for technology to become more coevolutionary. He was an instrumental driving force behind SRI and developed computer interface devices which led to the Graphical User Interface we have come to rely on.
Early computational devices had to be fed data in time consuming ways. Punch cards were an early method of data input. Eventually keyboards were added allowing data to be keyed in more easily and effectively. Text was shown on a monitor and could be manipulated when the cursor was in the appropriate place. Moving the cursor was done by use of the arrow keys. This was laborious, annoying, and time consuming. So Engelbart invented a pointing device and built his first one in 1963. He improved upon his idea and was granted a patent for an “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” or as we call it, a mouse.
Engelbart didn’t make any money off this revolutionary idea. The patent was good until 1987 which predates the personal computing era. Newer mice used different mechanisms to achieve their effect and so were not deemed to be infringing. Instead, SRI licensed the idea to Apple for the paltry sum or $40,000. The brilliant scientist slipped into obscurity and remained an unsung hero for decades. However, he was finally recognized with cash awards and titular honors by the mid-1990s. His contributions to computing science have shaped the world we live in today.
Engelbart envisioned our computing to be done by constantly holding the mouse in one hand and typing on a five-key chord keyset with the other. While this didn’t happen, the mouse of today is indispensible as it rests next to the keyboard. Mechanical mice were upgraded to optical mice. Left and right click buttons were separated by the scroll button. Wireless mice no longer even look like the small rodent for which they were named. And on laptops, the touchpad is simply a flat input device. But we all need our mice.
“Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” – Edsger W. Dijkstra
“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.” – Joseph Campbell
“After growing wildly for years, the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy.” – John Pierce
“Hardware: the parts of a computer that can be kicked.” – Jeff Pesis
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: SRI International was founded as Stanford Research Institute. It is a nonprofit research facility headquartered in Menlo Park, California. The trustees of Stanford University created the research branch in 1946 and it is now one of the largest contract research institutes in the world. They formally separated from the University it 1970 and became known as SRI International in 1977. Headquarters are still located near the Stanford campus. Their mission is scientific and technological in nature and they work for and with government agencies, commercial business, and private foundations. They license technologies and form strategic partnerships as well as spin-off businesses. They generated $585 million in 2012 and employed about 2,200 people. Physicist Curtis Carlson has been president and CEO since 1998. Sarnoff Corporation is a subsidiary of SRI since 1988 and is the brand name for the research business activities in Princeton, New Jersey. SRI is the owner of over 1,000 patents and patent applications worldwide.
Also on this day: The Heidi Game – In 1968, NBC didn’t finish the game, leaving a football game in progress to air the previously scheduled movie.
Delta Phi – In 1827, the fraternity was formed.
Anglo-Swedish War – In 1810, war was declared between two non-combatants.