William English, Who Helped Build the Computer Mouse, Dies at 91 - The New York Times
William English, the engineer and researcher who helped build the first computer mouse and, in 1968, orchestrated an elaborate demonstration of the technology that foretold the computers, tablets and smartphones of today, died on July 26 in San Rafael, Calif. He was 91.
His death, at a medical facility, was confirmed by his wife, Roberta English, who said the cause was respiratory failure.
In the late 1950s, after leaving a career in the Navy, Mr. English joined a Northern California research lab called the Stanford Research Institute, or S.R.I. (now known as SRI International). There he met Douglas Engelbart, a fellow engineer who hoped to build a new kind of computer.
At a time when only specialists used computers, entering and retrieving information through punched cards, typewriters and printouts, Mr. Engelbart envisioned a machine that anyone could use simply by manipulating images on a screen. It was a concept that would come to define the information age, but by his own admission Mr. Engelbart had struggled to explain his vision to others.
ImageAt a time when only specialists used computers, entering and retrieving information through punched cards, typewriters and print-outs,
At a time when only specialists used computers, entering and retrieving information through punched cards, typewriters and print-outs,Credit...via English family
Mr. English, known to everyone as Bill, was one of the few who understood these ideas and who had the engineering talent, patience and social skills needed to realize them. “He was the guy who made everything happen,” said Bill Duvall, who worked alongside Mr. English during those years. “If you told him something needed to be done, he figured out how to do it.”
After Mr. Engelbart had envisaged the computer mouse and drawn a rough sketch of it on a notepad, Mr. English built it in the mid-1960s. Housed inside a small pinewood case, the device consisted of two electrical mechanisms, called potentiometers, that tracked the movement of two small wheels as they moved across a desktop. They called it a mouse because of the way the computer’s on-screen cursor, called a CAT, seemed to chase the device’s path.
As they were developing the system, both Mr. English and Mr. Engelbart were part of the government-funded L.S.D. tests conducted by a nearby lab called the International Foundation of Advanced Study. Both took the psychedelic as part of a sweeping effort to determine whether it could “open the mind” and foster creativity.
Though Mr. Engelbart oversaw the NLS project, the 1968 demonstration in San Francisco was led by Mr. English, who brought both engineering and theater skills to the task. In the mid-1950s he had volunteered as a stage manager for a Bay Area theater troupe called The Actor’s Workshop.
For the San Francisco event, he used a video projector the size of a Volkswagen Beetle (borrowed it from a nearby NASA lab) to arrange and project the live images behind Mr. Engelbart as he demonstrated NLS from the stage. He had been able to set up the wireless link that sent video between the Menlo Park computer lab and the auditorium after befriending a telephone company technician.
Mr. English helped orchestrate an elaborate demonstration of the technology that foretold the computers, tablets and smartphones of today.
Mr. English helped orchestrate an elaborate demonstration of the technology that foretold the computers, tablets and smartphones of today.Credit...via English family
Three years after the demonstration, Mr. English left S.R.I. and joined a new Xerox lab called the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. There he helped adapt many of the NLS ideas for a new machine called the Alto, which became a template for the Apple Macintosh, the first Microsoft Windows personal computers and other internet-connected devices.