12 Questions for Bill English

Hiding in plain sight in Marin is the man responsible for the somewhat intimate relationship we have with our computers. William “Bill” English is a computer engineer and, in the early 1960s, way back before the dawn of the personal computer, he was working on a team at Stanford Research Institute. They were trying to figure out the best way to select a point on a computer monitor and, after testing of a variety of devices, the little box that would be dubbed “the mouse” won out. He moved on to Xerox PARC in 1971, where the mouse evolved to use a single ball instead of two wheels, and in 1989, he went to work for Sun Microsystems. Though he is retired these days, English has been enjoying life ever since the world beat a path to his door.

Computer Engineer BEL MARIN KEYS

1. What drew you to SRI?

I was in the navy and stationed in a number of places, but when I got my discharge it was in Menlo Park, actually. I looked for something to do and I saw an ad from the Stanford Research Institute. I thought, “Oh, that looks interesting.” I went down and talked to SRI — it was still Stanford at the time — and I got a job there.

2. So what led you to make the discovery of using a mouse as a pointing device?

It was quite clear that you needed a way to select things on the screen. So we looked at different ways you might do that. There were several ideas that came up, so I set up an experiment on pointing devices. The concept behind the mouse was a planimeter, a device that’s used to measure the area of the circle. It has two orthogonal wheels just like a mouse.

3. What sorts of challenges were there?

One of the issues is if I had too small a wheel, I wouldn’t get the moves far enough. I remember sitting there in front of a screen and moving an eraser back and forth, trying to figure out what sort of ratio feels right. So we built a mouse and ran some experiments with it and it was clearly a winner

4. What happened after that?

I was able to determine the wheel diameter and got the SRI machine shop to make the first mouse. And we did a great demo in 1968. The Mother of All Demos, it was called. That’s the first place the mouse was shown. Doug Englebart (team leader) was using the mouse and it got a huge amount of attention. It was a great experience.

5. Where did the Mother of All Demos take place?

At the Civic Center in San Francisco. I produced the whole show.

6. Where did the name “mouse” come from?

I imagine I did that. We had this box and a tail came out of it. Why not call it a mouse?

7. There’s, of course, the cordless mouse now and other advances but it’s still basically a mouse. Are you surprised that the device has had such longevity?

Not at all. There’s no competition in terms of a good device for pointing on a display.

8. If you made a nickel for every mouse that has been sold since the day you came up with it, what would you do with the money?

I don’t know. There are so many things to do. Travel is one thing I enjoy, to different parts of the world. A good place to live and a lot of travel.

9. Speaking of a good place to live, how long have you and your wife, Roberta, lived in Bel Marin Keys?

Quite a while. When my wife and I got married we lived in Portola Valley, which was neat. And then we moved to San Francisco. We had a wonderful house on Twin Peaks, with a wonderful view of the entire bay. That was neat. Next, my wife opened an art gallery in Sausalito and we actually lived on a Sausalito houseboat before ending up in Bel Marin Keys.

10. What sorts of things did you work on when you moved over and started working at Xerox PARC?

Well, we had to bring the mouse over, design it, and build it. And the Alto computer was a big deal, of course. So we built the Alto and that was the model for personal computers. It was the first prototype, no question about it.

11. Did you ever think the computer was going to start such a revolution?

I didn’t, no. The whole evolution of the computer is just amazing.

12. Do you have any advice for folks who might want to wean themselves off of technology?

Why would you want to do that?