back to article Co-inventor of the computer mouse, William English, dies

William English, who helped build the first computer mouse in 1963, died last week at the age of 91. English joined the Stanford Research Institute, now known as SRI International, in the late 1950s after leaving the Navy. There he met Douglas Engelbart, a fellow engineer who would become pivotal in the development of a new …

  1. druck Silver badge


    Raise your glasses for a man and a mouse.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Revolutionary

      The mouse that roared?

    2. Mike 125

      Re: Revolutionary

      "Doug Engelbart had the idea. Bill English did the engineering"

      Add a dreamer to an engineer. Subtract a beancounter. Sprinkle some place and time. Stand back and watch.

      It doesn't always work, but it's a damn good start.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Revolutionary

        The tricky bit's the subtraction.

        1. Beamer

          Re: Revolutionary

          In fact as any beancounter will tell you, it's pertinently impossible.

          All my childhood heroes are starting to die, I suppose that goes with getting older. At least they're all dying at/from old age rather than at 27 from OD. One of the many advantages of being a nerd. I've been using a mouse to operate GUIs since 83 or so when I was around 10 years old (GeOS on the C64). It really is an amazing device if you consider how easy it is to start using it, and how its basic design hasn't changed since its initial invention.

          1. Mage Silver badge

            Re: basic design hasn't changed since its initial invention?

            There are four basic design stages of actual mouse, excluding non-mouse pointing such as touch pads or wobble sticks/nubs.

            1) Two wheels at right angles.

            2) make them shafts on the top of a ball.

            3) optical using a special two colour grid on a mat

            4) optical on any arbitrary surface unless it's totally featureless and smooth.

            Also at some stage the middle button is a third axis roller to scroll or move on Z-axis.

          2. druck Silver badge

            Re: Revolutionary

            One of the first mice for the BBC Micro was the large and expensive AMX rat, I couldn't afford that so, bought a cheaper one to connect to the user port. It featured the real mouse layout, of buttons at the front and a tail at the back, before they realised the lead kept getting trapped under your wrist. As it was cheap the traction of the ball was poor, so it would only work well using the rough side of a bit of hardboard as a mouse mat, and the plastic case was so thin sunlight would confuse the sensors, requiring a mod with some black tape. But it worked, and was so much better than a joystick for precise control on screen, it revolutionised my use of the computer.

    3. Blackjack Silver badge

      Re: Revolutionary

      Do a double click in his honour.

  2. Mage Silver badge


    I'd heard from someone that worked at Xerox Parc that the ball based mouse was derived from the tracker ball and that they really wanted a pen sized one to work on a desk. However a mouse is actually less tiring to hold than say a Wacom stylus, though the stylus allows easier writing and sketching. The mouse is indeed a selection device easier to control accurately than a finger on a touch screen. Writing with a mouse is like trying to write with a potato.

    The mouse is still the best GUI selection device, though I don't miss the ball. Or cleaning the rollers for people mysteriously unable to do it. The first optical mouse I had used a special grid on a mat in the mid 1980s.

    A pint for the dear departed.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Trackerball?

      "a pen sized one to work on a desk."

      That idea did make it to market eventually. The "nib" was a lot more than pen sized though and a bit unwieldy compared to using what was now the accepted standard of a mouse.

    2. Spanners Silver badge

      Re: Trackerball?

      Or cleaning the rollers for people mysteriously unable to do it.

      I saw a lady using her hijab to clean them in Glasgow University library in the 80's!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Trackerball?

        Wikipedia suggests that the trackball was (possibly independently) invented a couple of times, as far back as the 1947, for experimental radar and other naval control systems. However, their military secret status meant that they weren't patented.

        1. Graham Cunningham

          Re: Trackerball?

          I remember the military applications well.... ;)

        2. Ivan Headache

          Re: Trackerball?

          The trackball - a ball-resolver - was an integral part of the NBS (Navigation Bombing System) of the V-Bomber fleet. It was inside the large unit with all those windy-handles and counters at the bottom of the photo

          All the input was via those handles and (IIRC) from the various radar systems on board.

          I remember doing a course on it but now, for the life of me cannot remember how it worked or what was done with the output!

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Trackerball?

      Of course the ball based mouse was somewhat later than the early version with just the wheels, and even without a tracker ball, it's an obvious next step. I remember turning different models of mouse upside down to see which worked best a tracker ball.

      The history of why Logitech, originally distributing a compiler did mice is interesting and possibly the Microsoft mouse was one of MS's best products. I'm using an MS Basic Optical Mouse v2.0

      I used to give 3 button mice to Apple users (OS 8 and OS9 days) and enjoy their joy at disposing of the single button unergonomic hockey puck.

      I still prefer one with a tail. No pesky RF to get messed up or battery to go flat. In a fictional world I've written they call the computer mouse a pointing pebble, or pebble as it has no tail and they have no mice or rats.

  3. cbars

    I gotta think about that

    We was always gonna do it by ourselves

  4. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Mouses chase CATs? I daresay some involved remember that as being true, but it's a new one on me. Other accounts, including Englebart's, say that the device was called a mouse because the cord looked like a mouse's tail.

    > "Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age"

    (ed. Constance Hale, HardWired, 1996, ISBN 1-888869-01-1) says:

    "What's the plural of that small, rolling pointing device invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1964? We prefer ~mouses~. ~Mice~ is just too suggestive of furry little creatures. But both terms are common, so take your pick. We actually emailed Engelbart to see what he'd say. His answer? 'Haven't given the matter much thought.'

    "In fact, Engelbart shared credit for the name with 'a small group in my lab at SRI.' Nobody among his colleagues seems to remember who first nicknamed the device, but all agree that the name was given because the cord ('tail') initially came out the 'back' of the device. 'Very soon we realised that the connecting wire should be brought out the "front" instead of the back,' Engelbart notes, but by then the name had stuck."

    What the above doesn't mention is that plurals like mice and lice (as opposed to houses) are for things of which there are too many to count - they are innumerable (we're talking swarms of mice in your granary, this is before pet mice of which you might have 2, or 9). We might all have a drawer or box of old computer mouses, but they can be counted accurately. They're not running around and hiding, for starters.

    1. Stumpy

      They're not running around and hiding, for starters.

      You've obviously never tried running a system with a cordless mouse in a household with real-live cats ...

    2. andypbw

      Mouses? Mice?

      The plural of "mouse" is of course "meeces"

    3. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      plurals like mice and lice (as opposed to houses) are for things of which there are too many to count - they are innumerable

      Really? Don't you know how many feet you have?

      I believe these apophonic plurals are simply words derived from the Old English consonant declension.

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        So why houses, and not hice, for more than one house

        1. Kernel

          "So why houses, and not hice, for more than one house"

          I can think of a couple of reasons;

          i) It's a lot easier to build a world-spanning empire if you insist on using a language that has few, if any, universally applicable rules and instead has many idiosynctric variations that have to be memorized;

          ii) Revenge for irregular verbs - as someone who had to learn German at school the least English can do is give a bit of grief back to Germans who are trying to learn English.

          In reality, it's because English is more of a 'Creole' language, being built of words and structures uplifted from other languages as was seen to be most convenient at the time, rather than a single source language eg., French.

          As an example, until recently I had always assumed that 'dinghy' was a strange, ancient, possibly Saxon or Old English word for a small boat - while poking around in a copy of "Hobson - Jobson" I learnt that it is actually a Bengali word for a small boat. I believe that umbrella and pyjamas are also common "English" words that have only been so since the days of the Raj.

          1. Citizen99

            I think of French as a Creole of Latin. "Pace", of course, the Academie Française.

          2. ICPurvis47 Bronze badge

            Raj words

            Similarly, Bungalow, Verandah, Khaki, Dungarees, and a whole host of other words imported from the Indian subcontinent. (Edit, I think that Umbrella is actually from Latin via Italian, where it means "small shadow").

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          "So why houses?"

          The Wikipedia entry on plurals gives "housen" as a rare/dialectal plural. I think modern "standard" English was cobbled together from multiple dialects which handled plurals (and other things) in different ways so maybe some of these exceptions come about by most words of a class coming from one dialect and the odd word from another.

        3. A.P. Veening Silver badge

          So why houses, and not hice, for more than one house

          It is the one exception to the rule, every fool knows the plural of spouse is spice ;)

    4. hmv

      "but they can be counted accurately"

      Says you. I'm half convinced that if you leave them alone in a dark drawer for long enough, they breed. Just don't leave a trackball in the same drawer - you really don't want to know!

      BTW: In Tom and Jerry, the mouse does indeed sometimes chase the cat.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "We might all have a drawer or box of old computer mouses, but they can be counted accurately."

      Experience says otherwise.

  5. Charlie van Becelaere


    "The Mother of All Demos", an event on 9 December 1968 in San Francisco

    That demo still amazes - at least as long as one has some concept of what was happening in computing at that time. It's quite amazing.

    I'll hoist a pint in English's honour even though I do try to do as much as I can without using the mouse - I'm still keyboard-first.

  6. mtp

    Clear evidence that it was invented hundreds of years earlier :-(

    Prior art from the middle ages

  7. Klimt's Beast Would

    If only...

    ...the Stanford Research Institute had been named the Research Stanford Institute (RSI), we all would have been warned.*

    It's always a great loss when a genius and a pioneer passes.

    * Have been using a very good cheapoid vertical mouse (Anker) the last few years. I've always wanted one since they appeared (late 1990s?) but they were an exhorbitant price for a long time. Fancied a trackball, but I've got weak thumbs.

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