William English, co-creator of the computer mouse, dies at age of 91

Written by Jennifer Allen

August 4, 2020 | 13:00

Tags: #computer-mouse #obituary #william-english

The co-creator of the computer mouse, William English, died last week from respiratory failure at the age of 91. 

An engineer and researcher, English is best known for his work on co-developing the computer mouse but he was also instrumental in many other inventions along the way too. Working closely with Douglas Engelbart, a fellow engineer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), the pair hoped to build a new kind of computer back in the 1960s. That led to the oNLine System (NLS) which was unveiled in December 1968 at an event in San Francisco and became retrospectively known as "The Mother Of All Demos" due to its innovative nature.

The demo may seem unremarkable by modern standards but it highlighted many modern computer and UI features that are now commonplace. It introduced the computer mouse, video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor. Sounds familiar? It was significantly ahead of its time in terms of ambition. At the time, computers were typically a matter of using punchcards and printouts to get anything done while these ideas were much more progressive, encouraging the idea of manipulating images on a screen and so forth.

As co-researcher for such a project, English accomplished a lot. The video above here was directed by him from 30 miles away using a wireless feed from cameras and mics, so even that involved a huge amount of work for the time. It was Douglas Engelbart that imagined a mechanical device like a mouse but English that turned it into a practical tool, building the device and testing it to ensure that it could navigate the screen sufficiently quickly.

The reason behind it being called a mouse? The computer's on-screen cursor was called a CAT and the cursor seemed to chase the device's path. 

Following on from his work at SRI, William English moved on to join a new Xerox lab called the Palo Alto Research Centre where he helped develop a new machine called the Alto which would eventually become a template for the Apple Mac and first Microsoft Windows computer leading to the world we know today. 

Thanks to William English's efforts, much of the technology we use today exists. 

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