Saddling Engelbart’s little mouse

It’s hard to consider blogging about anything else this morning than something related to the passing of Apple founder

The first mouse

Steve Jobs. As I sit here hit hammering away at my keyboard — an Apple keyboard attached to my Apple computer as my Apple IPad dings nearby — I am struck by how much Steve Jobs changed my life.

As a writer, I am most grateful for the ease with which I can compose. I often think of Mark Twain or Charles Dickens writing longhand their many books, laborious and time-consuming tasks. I can only imagine writing Nicholas Nickleby or Huckleberry Finn without a computer. How did they edit? How did they rearrange paragraphs and delete passages? How much time did it take for them to research or verify facts? By contrast, how easy it is for me with my Apple computer and 22-inch screen to do all this and more, to move paragraphs around, to look up information, to switch fonts from Times New Roman to Garamond. Much of that capability stems from Steve Jobs’ vision for what the future could be.

That is perhaps Jobs’ greatest legacy. With a mixture of vision, talent and determination, he saw what we now acknowledge as the essentiality of technology  in daily life, not just in science or business, but for ordinary people. It’s been said that he democratized computers. In doing so, he also democratized writing and communication by unleashing creativity and innovation. Thinking and innovating became cool, and every student today is a beneficiary of that legacy.

As massive as Jobs’ contribution was, however, he was one of many innovators. Consider, for instance, the mouse, so named for the “tail” that extends from it. It was not a Steve Jobs invention. That honor goes to Douglas Engelbart.

On December 9, 1968, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute staged a 90-minute public multimedia demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. It was the world debut of personal and interactive computing: for the first time, the public saw a computer mouse, which controlled a networked computer system to demonstrate hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, cathode display tubes, and shared-screen teleconferencing.*

Ideas, like bricks and mortar, build on each other. Steve Jobs saddled Engelbart’s little mouse and drove it into the future. He streamlined it, made it ergonomic, added touch sensors and made it an integral part of computer use. One great idea built on another great idea. It is how ideas drive our future.

Students today practice this every day. Working together in groups, students all across campus studying disciplines as varied art, engineering and sociology are merging their ideas and their own visions of what might be and building on them. It is an integral part of education — and an foundational part of innovation, the kind that makes Steve Jobs’ passing so notable.

Some JMU students have the chance to explore in real lab situations, such as the labs located in Harrisonburg of SRI International — yes that SRI — the birthplace of the mouse. SRI, an innovative incubator of research and development, so close to JMU has untold benefits. Exposure and linkage to innovation is much more than inspiring; it is potentially future changing. SRI may be the place from where the next Douglas Engelbart or Steve Jobs emerges. That person might be a JMU sophomore or junior today. Who knows?

What we do know is that the conditions are right — and the future is waiting.

Read more about JMU and SRI:
To learn more about the history of the mouse and SRI, visit:
*from SRI’s website:  (You can also see a video of the first mouse presentation.)

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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