By Claudine Beaumont
It was only meant to be a prototype. But 40 years after the computer mouse first scrolled its way into the public consciousness, new touch-screen technology could be about to consign the mouse to the annals of history.
The computer mouse was the creation of Doug Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute in California, who needed a simple way of controlling their computers. The result was a carved wooden block mounted on wheels, with a long cable trailing out the back. One researcher nicknamed it a mouse, and the moniker stuck.
"We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name," said Mr Engelbart. "But it didn't."
The mouse made its debut at a presentation in San Francisco in 1968 to show off a working network computer system. Before the invention of the mouse, people working on computers used a light pen, similar to those wielded by radar operators during the war, to navigate around on screen. The research team at the Institute set about finding an alternative, and went through a range of designs before finally settling on the mouse.
"We set up our experiments and the mouse won in every category, even though it had never been used before," said Mr Engelbart. "It was faster, and with it people made fewer mistakes. Five or six of us were involved in these tests, but no one can remember who started calling it a mouse. I'm surprised the name stuck."
The mouse was developed by Xerox during the 1970s, and the first commercial product was released in 1981 with the launch of the Xerox Star computer system. But it wasn't until Apple acquired the license for the mouse for $40,000 from the Standford Institute that the technology really took off. The Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, used the mouse to good effect, and is the machine widely credited with kick-starting the home computer revolution. The mouse became the default input method on most computers for the next two decades.
However, it faces stiff competition from new technology such as gesture control and touch-screen interfaces. Apple's iPhone mobile phone has shown people the power and potential of touch-screens, and the Nintendo Wii demonstrates the simplicity of natural gestures. Companies such as HP have already started building computers that rely on touch-sensitive monitors rather than a mouse, and Microsoft, too, is experimenting with new user interfaces. Its Surface computer is a touch-screen tablet which responds to natural hand gestures, touch and physical objects.
"I very much doubt we'll be using a mouse in 40 years' time," Steve Prentice, an analyst at Gartner Research, told the Observer.
Mr Engelbart, 83, did not make a fortune from his creation, however. The patent he had on the device ran out shortly before Apple launched it to a wider audience, meaning he received no royalties for his invention. However, in 1998 he finally received recognition for his innovative design when the then president, Bill Clinton, awarded him the National Medal of Technology for creating the foundations of modern computing.