Copy that

According to wikipedia, the computer mouse was introduced twenty-nine years ago today. At least that’s what the page for April 27 shows. Wikipedia’s page for 1981 doesn’t list the event. After all, it wasn’t exactly earthshaking. Until Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, few people were interested either in a GUI (graphical user interface) or the mouse that the interface required.

What is interesting (at least to me) about the history of the mouse is not when it was first marketed, but by what company. Think of all the companies you can remember that made personal computers in the early 1980’s. Even if you can remember a few (I was barely aware of the existence of PCs until 1985), you probably won’t think of this one.

Xerox. Yes, the company whose name is, for most people, synonymous with photocopying. (Properly speaking, we don’t xerox papers, we photocopy them. But I admit to using Xerox as a verb sometimes, usually without even thinking about it. And I make my copies on Canon and Sharp equipment.)

I visited a Xerox sales office once, when network printers and photocopying machines were just starting to merge. I remember that they talked about wanting to be known for document management, rather than photocopying. I remember being very impressed with their equipment, and disappointed that my manager wasn’t interested in getting one. I don’t remember whether I knew at that time how involved Xerox had once been in computer technologies that had nothing to do with document management.

The Palo Alto Research Center was a division of Xerox (now it is a subsidiary of Xerox) that developed a variety of technologies that are commonplace in computing today. Besides laser printing and WYSIWYG text editing, PARC developed Ethernet (the technology used to connect computers in local area networks) and an object-oriented programming language called Smalltalk. Plus the GUI and computer mouse.

I don’t know whether Xerox management later wished they had done more to commercialize these techonologies, rather than seeing other companies benefit from what they copied from Xerox. But then, Xerox was in the business of helping people make copies, weren’t they?

2 Responses to Copy that

  1. Peter L says:

    I heard the mouse came from 1960s’ technology. Interesting.

    • Pauline says:

      From what I read at wikipedia (not always a reliable source but I have no reason to think it’s wrong here), the first mouse prototype was invented in 1963. It didn’t have a ball, it used external wheels. The first ball mouse was made in 1972 (by one of the same men who made that first one). It was used at PARC with the Alto computer, but the Alto was never available commercially. Probably the 1981 date marks when the mouse was first available for sale.

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