Early computer mouse and coding keyset scamper to $178K at auction

An early three-button mouse and coding keyset, created by computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart, achieved $178,936 at auction on March 16. Image courtesy of RR Auction

An early three-button mouse and coding keyset, created by computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart, achieved $178,936 at auction on March 16. Image courtesy of RR Auction

BOSTON – An early mouse and coding keyset created by computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart sold for $178,936 on March 16 at RR Auction.

The pair of early input devices are like those used in Engelbart’s iconic 1968 “The Mother of All Demos.” The three-button computer mouse utilizes two metal discs that correspond to the X-axis and Y-axis on the bottom to locate the position of the cursor, rather than a ball or an optical light, which came to be used later. The coding keyset features five keys, permitting 31 key-press combinations for typing and entering commands.

As demonstrated in The Mother of All Demos, this hardware configuration allowed a user to point and click using the mouse in the right hand while entering commands using the keyset on the left. The keyset was meant to supplement — not replace — a traditional keyboard.

The Mother of All Demos would prove to be massively influential, though it took more than a decade for Engelbart’s ideas to become mainstream.

In the early 1970s, much of Engelbart’s original team ended up at Xerox PARC, where they continued their research in human-computer interaction and kept improving upon the mouse. While touring the research facility in 1979, Steve Jobs witnessed the concepts of the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI) in action. Impressed by their user-friendliness, he aimed to simplify and incorporate these intuitive features into Apple’s computers.

The Xerox mice cost $300 apiece, didn’t roll around smoothly, and had three buttons. Jobs wanted a simple, single-button model that cost $15. Apple licensed Engelbart’s mouse patent from SRI for around $40,000, and Jobs hired the design firm IDEO to bring the mouse to the masses.

Apple’s mouse — which used a rollerball mechanism — was introduced with the expensive Lisa computer in 1983, but achieved fame and popularity when the more affordable Macintosh was released in 1984.

“Engelbart’s invention would, in part, change the course of modern life,” said RR Auction Executive VP Bobby Livingston. “This device played a crucial role in the evolution of computer history.”