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The Computer Mouse

To reflect on the importance of a device we rarely notice and give tribute to its late inventor, Doug Engelbart.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To reflect on the importance of a device we rarely notice and give tribute to its late inventor, Doug Engelbart.

Preparation and materials

  • Have a computer mouse to hand. You could also download copyright-free pictures of Doug Engelbart, his original mouse and early computers and have the means to show them to illustrate the assembly.
  • Find some electronic music to play, such as that by Kraftwerk, and have the means to play it as the students leave at the end of the assembly.


  1. Today’s computers would have been beyond even being thought possible 50 years ago. In the 1960s, computers were still in the relatively early stages of development, relying on punch cards and taking up huge spaces, capable of doing little more than calculations. In 1968, computer experts gathered in San Francisco to demonstrate a new approach to computing that has come to be known as the ‘mother of all demos’.The demonstration, by the Augmentation Research Centre, was something revolutionary. The Centre’s leader, Doug Engelbart, manipulated an object on the screen using a little device with two wheels – the first ever computer mouse. Other demonstrations included multiple windows and teleconferencing.The computer scientist Alan Kay, a co-founder of Xerox PARC, later said, ‘The demo was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To me, it was Moses opening the Red Sea  . . .  It reset the whole conception of what was reasonable to think about in personal computing.’
  2. Engelbart was an electrical engineer from Oregon, USA. He had become fascinated by futurist articles and wanted to improve the world for all humanity. He had served in the Navy in the Second World War and his experience with radar gave him the inspiration for a computer screen that could be used to share and edit information.
  3. The computer mouse would become a ubiquitous and an instantly identifiable part of people’s image of computers, yet Engelbart is not well known. Engelbart imagined future computers as centralized and shared, yet computers today are often individually owned. He was eventually awarded the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson prize in 1997, among other awards, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2000. By thinking outside the box, combining an idealistic desire to help people with an active imagination, he was able to really change the world.Yet, Doug Engelbart didn’t make a fortune, nor did he become as famous as Steve Jobs. The patent on the mouse expired long before most people came across it and he continued to work quietly in his area of expertise. It was only when he died in the summer of 2013 that he had his five minutes of fame.

Time for reflection

Think about Engelbart’s life and how much you use his invention – the computer mouse.

Quietly, let’s be thankful for unsung geniuses – those who change the world, but whose lives are rarely acknowledged and who don’t want to take part in a celebrity culture.

Which would you rather be – a celebrity who lives in the spotlight, but leaves little of lasting good or an anonymous person who has changed the world?


Play some music by Kraftwerk or another similar electronic band.

Publication date: October 2013   (Vol.15 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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