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 type of computer.
Computers of that era relied on punch cards and other user interface horrors.
Engelbart wanted to create a new type of computer that anyone could use by manipulating images on a screen and dreamed up a mechanical device that could perform tasks by selecting particular symbols or images.
Using Engelbart’s notes, English built the first prototype of a computer mouse in 1963. The device was housed inside a small pinewood case and consisted of two electrical mechanisms, called potentiometers, that tracked the movement of two small wheels as they moved across a physical desktop.
The device was called a mouse because of the way the cursor, then called a CAT, seemed to chase the device’s path across the screen.
Two years later, English led a project sponsored by NASA to evaluate which device could navigate a computer display the fastest. The mouse he helped develop alongside Engelbart won.
The experimental computer system that Engelbart pioneered, called oNLine System, or, more commonly, NLS, was unveiled at “The Mother of All Demos”, an event on 9 December 1968 in San Francisco that has since been hailed as one of the most important events in the history of interactive computing.
The 90-minute demonstration showed early forms of text editing, video conferencing and hypertext. As Engelbart addressed the audience in-person, English used live video and the mouse he helped design to direct the computer more than 48km away in Menlo Park, California.
After leaving SRI in 1971, English joined a new Xerox lab called the Palo Alto Research Centre, or Parc, where he adapted Engelbart’s computer idea to help build a new machine. The Alto, as it came to be called, inspired the Apple Macintosh. The rest is history.
While working at PARC, English developed the ball mouse, which replaced the wheels of his original design with a sphere that could move in multiple directions.
English died at a medical facility in San Rafael, California on 26 July 2020 as a result of respiratory failure. ®