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Inventor of computer 'mouse' finally cashes a big check


April 9, 1997
Web posted at: 11:08 p.m. EDT (0308 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Brian Jenkins

NEW YORK (CNN) -- He can't recall which member of his team first nicknamed the hand-held device with a cord a "mouse," but it was Doug Engelbart who invented and patented what he called the "x-y position indicator."

Hundreds of millions of computer "mice" have been made since then, but Engelbart got only one check for his invention -- for $10,000.

Now, as the recent winner of the third annual Lemelson-Mit Prize for American Innovation, he's picking up $500,000.

"Sometimes I reflect on how naive somebody has to be in order to get visions -- and plug away at them -- that ultimately proceed, and how many other people with visions that are as naive just fall off the cliff," Engelbart says.


A radar technician during World War II, Engelbart worked at the Stanford Research Institute during the 1960s. It was there that a vision of people sitting in front of a video screen, interacting with a computer, came to him.

"I knew enough engineering and had enough experience as a radar person to know that if a computer can punch cards or print paper, it can draw anything you want on a screen," he says.

'I'd be treated like a leper'

At a 1968 computer conference in San Francisco, Engelbart spelled out his vision.


"If, in your office, you, as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly ... responsive to every action you have, how much value could you derive from that?"

The answer, apparently, was, "Not much." None of the makers of mainframe computers listening to his presentation responded or showed any interest in his ideas.

"I'd be treated like a leper," he recalls.

But Engelbart persisted. He came up with concepts that led to windows on the computer screen as well as online publishing, video-conferencing, e-mail and software that allows several people in different locations to work on one document at the same time.

Embracing Internet took a decade

And when the first personal computers came out in the early 1980s, Engelbart's response was "a funny feeling of 'Why did it take so long?'"


It took another decade for the PC industry to embrace the Internet. Engelbart recalls the reason one computer company executive gave for ignoring the power of networking.

"He said, 'Nope, I don't want to get tied with other people, because they'll usurp resources and it'll get complicated.'"

"I said, 'I know, but that's like having this very fancy office, but no doors.'"

Now, Engelbart and his daughters run the Bootstrap Institute, helping companies and organizations build doorways to others in their fields.

His $500,000 prize, he says, will help him keep bringing people together via computer into the new millennium.


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