Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Computer Mice Work

Evolution of the Computer Mouse

It is amazing how simple and effective a mouse is, and it is also amazing how long it took mice to become a part of everyday life. Given that people naturally point at things -- usually before they speak -- it is surprising that it took so long for a good pointing device to develop. Although originally conceived in the 1960s, a couple of decades passed before mice became mainstream.

In the beginning, there was no need to point because computers used crude interfaces like teletype machines or punch cards for data entry. The early text terminals did nothing more than emulate a teletype (using the screen to replace paper), so it was many years (well into the 1960s and early 1970s) before arrow keys were found on most terminals. Full screen editors were the first things to take real advantage of the cursor keys, and they offered humans the first way to point.

Light pens were used on a variety of machines as a pointing device for many years, and graphics tablets, joy sticks and various other devices were also popular in the 1970s. None of these really took off as the pointing device of choice, however.

When the mouse hit the scene -- attached to the Mac, it was an immediate success. There is something about it that is completely natural. Compared to a graphics tablet, mice are extremely inexpensive and they take up very little desk space. In the PC world, mice took longer to gain ground, mainly because of a lack of support in the operating system. Once Windows 3.1 made Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) a standard, the mouse became the PC-human interface of choice very quickly.