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Why Are Computer Mice Called That?

JD Lasica on Flickr

Computer hardware sometimes has silly names, but none as silly as the mouse you use to move the cursor around. It doesn’t have ears, it doesn’t like cheese, and if it starts squeaking, there’s something wrong with it — so why do we call it a mouse?

If you think of how the mouse animal looks, and compare it to how a computer mouse is shaped, you may understand: while your computer mouse doesn’t have a nose or whiskers, it does have a “body” that’s the size of a large mouse. The cord running from the mouse to your PC acts as the tail, unless you’re using a fancy cordless one.

The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Englebart back in 1963. In those days, using a computer was a real hassle. There were no icons to click or windows to move around; after all, there was no mouse to do those things.

Instead, to use a computer, you had to use what’s called a command line. This isn’t as exciting as it sounds; it’s just some text telling you where you are on the computer’s file system. You can then type commands into the command line to move between files or run programs.

If you want to see it yourself, you can open up a command line on a Windows machine. Imagine using the computer purely through it, and you can see why the mouse got invented — such a hassle!

Douglas was sick of typing things all day, so he set about to find a way to make things easier for everyone. He went through a few different ways to move a cursor around a screen, such as a ball you held in two hands and a head tracking system. Douglas stuck with one of their simpler and more elegant ideas; a wooden block with two wheels underneath it.

This wooden block would be the great-granddad of the mouse. Back then, however, Douglas didn’t call it a mouse: he gave it the really boring name of XY Position Indicator. You could use the block to indicate an X (left-right) and Y (up-down) coordinate on the screen.

If you want to see the very first mouse in action, there is a video online showing the 1968 demonstration that Douglas made for the mouse. When you watch it, you can even hear Douglas, the mouse’s inventor, point out how silly the device’s name is:

“…and the way the tracking spot moves in conjunction with movements of that mouse…I don’t know why we call it a mouse, sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it…”

In the video, you’ll also see that the original mouse used mechanical wheels to work out where the user was moving the cursor. It also had a wire coming out the other side of the mouse, where your wrist rests. The position was changed to where it was today, presumably because it kept the wire out of the way.
So there you go; now you know how the mouse got its name, and how it came to be. The next time you think about how silly its name is, just remember; even the original inventor wasn’t too keen on it, either!

Learn More

Original mouse demonstration


Why is a Computer Mouse Called a Mouse?


Douglas Engelbart bio


Who Invented the Computer Mouse


Why is a Computer Mouse Called a Mouse?


Using your Computer Mouse video (for kids)


Not a Computer Mouse


Computer Mouse Facts for Kids


First Computer Mouse was Wooden


History of the Mouse


NASA: Birth of the Mouse