Born Jan. 30, 1925, Douglas Engelbart isn’t a household name for most people, but we all know—and many of us can’t live without—his most famous invention: the computer mouse.
The Portland, Oregon, native served as a Navy radar technician in the Philippines during World War II, and one day in an island reading library he came across the article “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush in which Bush describes a universal information retrieval system. The article inspired Engelbart’s life work. Following the war, he went to work at a California aerospace lab. He focused on the idea of “scaling”—although in a different direction than the aerospace engineers he worked with, who started with small models and built full-size airplanes. Engelbart, on the other hand, envisioned scaling room-size mainframe computers into something that could fit on a desk and be operated by a rolling pointing device.
Bringing Engelbart’s vision to life
In 1964, Englebart gave a sketch of this rolling device to mechanical engineer William English, who built a three-button prototype in a wooden case. It’s believed the device was called “mouse” because it chased a cursor, or “CAT,” across the screen.
The mouse was just one part of the multi-user oN-Line System (NLS) developed by Engelbart and his colleagues at SRI’s Augmentation Research Lab. The NLS featured mixed-text graphics, hyperlinks, collaborative software, and screen sharing. In 1968, in what is now known as the “Mother of All Demos,” Engelbart presented the NLS to his peers at a computer conference. NLS became the second host for the ARPANET, precursor to the internet.
Engelbart died in 2013 at age 88. Posthumously inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame, Engelbart never received any royalties from inventing the mouse.