Even though computing machines had existed since World War II, major breakthroughs had been comparatively few and far between until the mid-1970s. On April 27, 1981, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) changed the way people interacted with machines forever by introducing the mouse as part of the 8010 Star Information System workstation. The small, hand-guided box with two clickable buttons finally made the computer personal, leading to a revolution in technology that continues to this day.
Founded in 1970 as a research and development arm of the Xerox empire, the team of engineers at PARC were charged with finding innovative ways to drive new segments of the business. For the better part of three decades, computers were room-sized strings of complex adding machines that had to be programmed before they could produce any useful information: a technician — or, more likely, a group of them — turned a sequence of knobs and pulled a number of levers before running a test. From the mid-1950s, systems gradually became more sophisticated, aided in the large part by the use of electronic components instead of vacuum tubes.
Within a year of being created, PARC proved its worth with the development of the world’s first laser printer, transferring an image to paper by altering the connection with a typical Xerox copier drum. By 1973, the engineers developed a personal workstation — known as the Xerox Alto — that revolutionized the innovation process within the division. Each worker had an individual computer and, before long, the stations were linked via the world’s first ethernet system. Files could now be edited in one place and the changes seen in another, a process made easier by the connection of a rudimentary mouse.
At the same time, programmers were forced to conceive of new ways to make the programs more user friendly. Members of the PARC team opted for a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to design, believing the simplest method to help the user create what he or she desired would yield the best results. When combined with the point-and-click nature of using the mouse, engineers felt as though the system became more intuitive — it allowed the operator the closest experience possible to just reaching over and touching the screen. (This principle of usability and its correlation to natural human movements, known as Fitts’ Law, was a somewhat obscure theory at the time.)
As 1975 came to a close, PARC had laid the foundation for office computing and networking familiar to corporate settings today. It didn’t take long for employees to see the potential market for a graphical user interface (GUI) with icons to denote different functions and small windows which could be laid over one another. Through a painstaking development process, the group pulled together a commercial version of the workstations they had been using at PARC for half a decade.
On April 27, 1981, the Xerox marketing team introduced the 8010 Star Information System to the public, the first workstation shipped with a dedicated mouse. Though primitive designs for a handheld device existed as early as 1952, none were widely adopted until the Macintosh 128K and its single-button Lisa Mouse took the world by storm in 1984.
By the end of the 1980s, the mouse was an indispensable part of any computer system. The flood of desktop workstations into the home and office made the technology ubiquitous, particularly as each successive iteration was easier to use. As the mouse became more refined, laser optics replaced moving parts, providing better precision and tracking for the user.
With the rise of touchscreens on mobile phones and tablets, some are left to wonder if the age of the computer mouse is nearing its end. The movement toward tap-to-type interfaces and multi-touch surfaces certainly threatens to render the clicking of buttons obsolete, yet it is extremely likely the humble mouse will remain a part of computing in some capacity, likely for specialists — similar to what it began in the PARC offices four decades ago.
Also On This Day:
1521 – Ferdinand Magellan is killed on his attempt to circumnavigate the Earth at the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.
1667 – John Milton sells the Copyright for Paradise Lost.
1810 – Ludwig van Beethoven composes Fur Elise.
1950 – South Africa is officially segregated after the passing of the Group Areas Act.
1994 – The first democratic general election in South Africa allowing black citizens to vote occurs.