The idea behind computer mouse, the little device that transformed the way people computed, is now half a century old. In the recent death of its inventor Douglas Carl Engelbart (88), the world has lost a genius who stood out among inventors as one with a vision that was not clouded by the lure of money. Not many know that he was a trailblazer for many ideas that are now standard fare. For instance, the mouse, which he demonstrated in 1968 in what was dubbed the “mother of all demos”, has itself undergone a metamorphosis. From a large box-like structure, it became smaller and smaller, corded and then wireless, to finally disappear into a trackpad and other substitutes on laptops, tablets and cell phones which have begun to replace desktop personal computers (PCs).
However great Engelbert’s invention, it was incidental to his vision of computers augmenting human intellect and increasing the people’s “collective IQ”. But the invention of microprocessors and the arrival of the ubiquitous PC made multi-tasking easy for the individual, making the concept of “collective IQ” almost redundant.
The mouse would not have been invented without the massive funding he received from the US defence agencies. Historians of computer science will also record another painful truth that many of his seminal ideas did not get the financial support they needed. This had something to do with the fact that his ideas of centralised computing and time-sharing ran counter to the countercultural revolution in personal computing. That did not deter him from propagating his vision of a society in which groups of highly productive workers would spend hours collectively manipulating information on shared computers. He even set up his own laboratory to pursue his ideas. Engelbart was in many ways the quintessential seeker of an idea that could really change the world.