by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
December 29-31, 2000
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- In mid-December 1968, Douglas C. Englebart and some 17 researchers demonstrated live an online system they had been working on since 1962. Rumor has it that at this public debut of a little box with an electric cord attached, someone in the room jokingly said, "Eeek, it's a mouse."
Although the mouse, as we continue to know it, was only one of many innovations that day -- hypertext, object addressing, dynamic file linking, shared-screen collaboration with two people in different places -- it's only the mouse that has dramatically altered the course of my life.
Programmed to raise my left hand at the sound of a bell to return the carriage for a new line of type, I now found myself on the outside looking in. By the time I was able to by an IBM Selectric with automatic return, they stopped making ribbons for it. I could no longer stay outside, I had to go in.
Except for the screen, it looked pretty much like a typewriter. The keyboard was the same. I quickly learned to use up arrows, down arrows, home, end, scroll, left, right, shift and tab. Easy. Then I got a mouse pad for Christmas -- but I didn't have a mouse. When the function of the mouse was explained, I said, "Well, how lazy can you be? It doesn't do anything I can't do with the arrows."
Then, I was given a mouse -- to prove somebody's point. I had it installed by a young fellow who wasn't even born in 1968 but now flipped cords, cables, plugs and a disk around before saying, "Okay, now, just move the mouse where you want it to go on the screen and double click the left button." I looked blankly at him.
Now, I've felt dumb in my life before, but always had the grace to look intelligent. Not this time. He knew the look. "Here," he said. He cupped the hump-backed little 'mouse' in his right hand, slid it around as he watched an on-screen arrow point to File. He double-clicked and the menu came down; he clicked on New and the screen became the blank sheet of paper I write on. He was doing instantly what I could do with arrows and entering -- yet he never took his eyes off the screen as I must as a hunt-and-peck typist.
"Here, try it," he said, pointing me toward the chair. I shifted in my seat and braved handling the mouse with as much anxiety as I felt handling my kid's gerbils. I moved the mouse and the arrow went helter-skelter across the screen.
"Whoa, wait a minute, slow down, easy on the touch," he said with authority. I followed instructions and in minutes I had written words - "entered text," he told me - learned to highlight, cut or copy, paste, delete words or lines - in short, to do things impossible to conceive of with a manual or electric typewriter, nor even with a computer's keyboard using keystrokes instead of this intelligent little mouse who moves the cursor as I direct it.
The mouse, according to Doug Englebard, introduced the idea of having "...a workstation at your disposal all day that was perfectly responsible ... or responsive."
Only 1000 people attended the December 9, 1968, meeting in Menlo Park, Calif., but the little mouse sitting front and center was part of a revolution that continues to explode every day. One mouse then, and now, there is probably a mouse in more homes than there are houses. It doesn't seem that long ago that a mark of progress was having more television sets than bathtubs in this country.
Until this, I believe every invention in my lifetime was really just an innovation. Radio and sound through a wire led to pictures through the wires and television; telephones just became easier to use and fancier to hold. Electric light provided candle power; automobiles had horse power.
The computer age, however, changed my life, while at the same time did not change me. I'm still a hunt-and-peck typist and I'm also a hunt-and-seek traveler on the Internet, ever searching, clicking here, clicking there. I don't understand any of it. The beauty is, I don't have to.
After brief mention on National Public Radio's This Date in History, I started looking for information on the day the mouse was introduced. At first, I found nothing and convinced myself there was nothing because if I were searching, I must have already found the mouse and knew how to use it.
Finally, I located mention of The Bootstrap Institute, conceived by Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart, "to further his lifelong career goal of boosting any organization's ability to successfully address problems that are complex and urgent."
Along with publishing the goal, there was a mission statement of a dozen or more lines. I'm not computer-literate enough to understand most of their language or intent. But, in one line, I found words speaking directly to me and telling exactly how I fit into this exploding phenomenon. Part of their mission is to "Enable a whole new way of thinking about the way we work, learn, and live together."
Speaking for myself, they have done just that. As for the rest of the world, see for yourself.