Co-Creator of Computer Mouse William English Dies, 91 Years Old

William English co-created the computer mouse and also helped inspire modern computers.
Brad Bergan

While not everyone still uses a computer mouse, for decades no one could have used a computer without one, thanks to William English — who died on July 26 due to respiratory failure in San Rafael, California, The New York Times reports.

He was 91 years old, and he will be missed.


William English dead, co-creator of computer mouse

English was a researcher and engineer, and while his cohort in creating the computer mouse — Douglas Englebart — is likely more renowned for conceptualizing the idea itself, it wouldn't have happened without English.

Everyone knows computers in the late 1950s can't come close to matching modern computers of even the most primitive variety. They were big clunky devices that needed punch cards, typewriters, and printouts, reports Gizmodo.

This is when — after parting ways with the U.S. Navy — English first met Englebart at the Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI International). Englebart conceived of a new kind of computer capable of letting anyone take control of images on computer screens, specifically — one allowing users to select symbols and images.

However, Englebart couldn't clearly communicate his idea to peers, reports The New York Times. It took young English's mind to parse his colleague's idea — not just the scope of innovation, but how it might be done.

English's first computer mouse prototype

English created a prototype based on Englebart's rough sketches and notes, Gizmodo reports. The first version used a pinewood case with two "potentiometers," which are electrical mechanisms that track the movement of two wheels as they roll along a flat surface.

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They named it after a mouse because the on-screen cursor — called a CAT — looked like it was "chasing" a "mouse" around the screen. Later, in 1965, another project funded with NASA money. English researched the best way to select a point within the bounds of a computer screen.

Then — while working in the PARC Xerox lab during the 1970s — English replaced the wheels of the first prototype with the movable sphere we came to know and love for decades.

'The Mother of All Demos,' testing the computer mouse

In 1968, English played a crucial role in the historic presentation called "The Mother of All Demos." He and Englebart had developed an experimental computer system called the oNLine System (NLS) that could do everything modern computing systems are expected to do — including windows, video conferencing, hypertext, graphics, word processing, and much more.

In the 90-minute presentation that Englebart gave on December 9, 1968, viewers didn't notice English working behind the scenes to ensure everything went smoothly. He directed the entire production from the rear of the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco with cameras and microphones to synchronize live, two-way video between the presentation hall and the lab in Menlo Park.

English also helped bring Englebart's idea to develop the Xerox Alto come to fruition during his time at PARC — a machine that later inspired the Macintosh and Apple Lisa systems — and the first Microsoft Windows PCs, too.

Some of us may be out-of-touch with the computer mouse lifestyle, but each of us likely carries countless memories during which we held one in hand. So while the memories may be minor, their aggregate contribution to our lives is thanks, in large part, to William English.

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