On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart and 17 other researchers from the Stanford Research Institute gave a 90-minute demo of groundbreaking technologies that provided a startlingly accurate glimpse of a future that was still decades away. One of those technologies was a computer interface navigated with a mouse: a device Engelbart had invented and patented. Now one of his original three-button mice is going up for auction.
The presentation, given at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco that year, has since become known as the “mother of all demos” and showcased technologies that Engelbart and a team of researchers at the Stanford Research Institute’s Augmented Research Centre had been developing since 1962. The demo included such groundbreaking concepts as word processing with real-time editing, hyperlinks that would one day power the world wide web, video conferencing, screen sharing, and a windowed software interface that could be navigated with a pointing device that controlled an on-screen cursor invented by Engelbart and his colleague, Bill English.
Even the on-stage faux office and the NLS (short for oNLine System) computer consoles used for the demo were designed by furniture maker Herman Miller who in the same year was credited with inventing the office cubicle, and to this day is a name synonymous with comfortable office chairs. You can watch the first part of the “mother of all demos” courtesy of the Doug Engelbart Institute YouTube channel embedded below, while parts two and three are also available if you’ve got 90 minutes to spare today.
The revolutionary technologies demonstrated during the “mother of all demos” influenced researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (where Bill English later developed a ball version of the computer mouse) who designed and built their Alto computer in 1973 that was demoed for Steve Jobs. That demo would eventually inspire Jobs to create the Lisa personal computer in 1983 (Apple’s first computer with a mouse that licensed the technology from the Stanford Research Institute for $US40,000 ($53,084)) and the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which went on to define modern computing.
Engelbart eventually founded a technology consulting firm called the Douglas Engelbart Institute which borrowed office space in Fremont, California, from another company synonymous with computer mice: Logitech. During that time, Engelbart struck up a friendship with Logitech’s PR director, Serge Timacheff, and eventually gifted him one of the original computer mice he had designed and built which featured three buttons on the top and a pair of perpendicular rolling metal wheels on the underside, which Timacheff is now selling through RR Auction, along with letters of authenticity.
Is this the actual mouse Engelbart used during the “mother of all demos”? It doesn’t appear to be. The recorded footage of the demo is grainy and low quality, but whenever the console that Engelbart is working on is pictured, the mouse he’s pushing around appears to have a darker coloured housing. Was it used by other persons in the demo who video called in from nearby Menlo Park? That’s not known either, and unfortunately, Engelbart passed away in 2013 so the mouse’s full provenance can’t be confirmed.
That, and the fact the mouse’s cord has been snipped off so it could be displayed on Timacheff’s desk in his office, is probably why the artefact is conservatively estimated to sell for over $US800 ($1,062). Had it been the mouse featured in the “mother of all demos” it would probably fetch thousands of dollars, but it’s still an intriguing piece of Silicon Valley history, and you can probably expect a collector or a museum to try and snatch this one up before the auction officially closes on December 17.