[Pittsburgh International Airport, 10/1/2002]

I’ve got a couple hours’ layover here, between a flight from Ithaca NY, and to my beloved Bay Area. I gave a talk at Cornell in the Science Technology and Society department yesterday about the mouse project, along with a lunchtime colloquium to the Science Studies Research Group about doing history of science outside the academic world. The mouse talk stretched a little farther than my present sources will go, but I’ve been playing with an idea that is really interesting to me, and wanted to try it out.

Every research project carries its surprises: things that you didn’t expect to find, connections that you didn’t expect to make, or things that at first seem trivial but turn out to be really interesting. Sometimes you find an aspect that at first seems trivial– or which both historians and your subjects always downplayed, for whatever reason– but which turns out to be a really nice window into some process or phenomenon. I’ve recently found one with the mouse: the geography of the buttons.

The geography of the buttons

One of the things that impresses me about recent mice is the proliferation of multi-button mice, especially mice that have buttons under the thumb. This is, so far as I can tell, a new phenomenon: even Doug Engelbart, who admitted that he would have put more buttons his mouse if he could have figured out where they could go, didn’t consider putting mice under the thumb (or at least I haven’t been able to find any indication of thumb buttons in the papers, but of course absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence; I wonder if he’d remember). None of the Hovey-Kelley prototypes had thumb buttons. Now, though, they’re becoming more and more common. Why?

The answer, I think, has to do with the proliferation of other kinds of digital devices– by this I mean devices that you use to manipulate information in digital form– that have thumb-oriented input devices. The Nintendo and Sega game pads are the great example: most of the work is done with the thumbs, rather than the fingers. Likewise, the Blackberry, Treo, and a few other PDA-like devices use thumb keyboards, or thumb boards as I think they’re called. (I had a Sharp organizer when I was a postdoc at Stanford, which was the size of a checkbook, and I found the keyboard to be a real problem. It was too small to use both hands, but it also would have been too large to use my thumbs. You can shrink a keyboard or blow up a thumb board only so far and still use it, and there’s a substantial distance between smallest useful keyboard and largest useful thumb board.) As a result, the amount of thumb dexterity has risen, and this makes the real estate under the thumb more valuable for mouse designers.

Indeed, it’s now clear that while the introduction of the scroll wheel, shift to cordless, and the growth of the optical mouse are all significant, in a lot of ways the buttons are the most interesting part of the story to someone interested in understanding how the mouse and its users co-evolve. By this, I mean how mouse design is affected by 1) the repertoire of skills and previous experiences users bring to the mouse, and 2) the kinds of things they use computers for. The irony is that the buttons are, in most ways, the most technically trivial parts of the mouse: all you need is a microswitch that you buy from someone else and drop in. But the ones that most clearly reflect the social, cognitive, and physical forces affecting the mouse’s design.

The secret history of physical skill

I don’t know if there are any historical studies that try to trace the emergence and spread of physical skills. We talk all the time about craft work and “skill” in a generic sense, as a package of abilities that we can reasonably black-box, and it’s generally not considered necessary to catalog them. Of course, they’re dreadfully difficult to trace: I think you can find some stuff in microscopy or astronomy about strategies for seeing (or learning to see) difficult objects, but physical skills are even harder to get a handle on. I came into the history of science just when a number of works appeared arguing for the value of looking at scientific practices, as opposed to (or in addition to) ideas, institutions, etc. My work on visual representation in astronomy, and the shift from drawing to photography in solar physics, built on that tradition (or movement); and every now and then I’d find a little stuff on the relationship between training in certain kinds of drawing or media, and perceptual ability. Ink washes, for example, were supposed to train artists to see things in terms not of lines and shapes, but shades and lights (or so Philip Gilbert Hamilton argued). And there were tips about seeing dim objects through the telescope by not looking directly at them, because one’s peripheral vision has better light sensitivity. But while interesting, these aren’t quite the same things; nor was I ever able to successfully pursue them to the point of writing an article about them.

I’ll need to ask around to see if there are works that trace the history of physical skills and mental abilities. The most likely place for a discussion of the growth of particular fine motor skills is in the history of art, or the history of dance (assuming there’s any good work in the latter), or possibly something odd like circus performing. (Jackie Chan has an interesting riff in his autobiography about how the years of training in Peking Opera gave him the physical dexterity and bodily sense that he has now.) There is a whole literature on the history of the body, but my sense is that it treats the body in a pretty theoretical way; but maybe I’m wrong. Another likely place would be intensive crafts like watch-making, jewelry-making, or maybe surgery (the extreme sports of the productive world).

There’s also at least some anecdotal stuff about body memory. We all know the examples of riding a bicycle: that’s a great, easily-grasped example of tacit knowledge, a type of skill that many people possess but which we can’t describe or teach to others. I also understand that dyslexic children are taught to spell by writing really big letters, because the use of gross motor skills promotes memory. Apparently writing on a slanted surface also helps. (It makes me wonder about all those medieval pictures of desks, where scholars are working on slanted surfaces. Was their prodigious ability to remember things they’d read assisted by those desks? Was their a physical component to the craft of memory? I should check Mary Carruthers’ books, The Book of Memory and The Craft of Thought, and see if they say anything about them. And, while I’m at it, when did level desks become the norm?)

Strangely, this was an aspect of the talk that didn’t evoke many questions. I would have expected that it would raise all kinds of interesting historiographic issues, or at least something about how this represented a weird turn away from constructivism and towards a new internalism. But instead I got the usual questions about gender, the politics of the user, etc., the sorts of things that you’d expect to hear hauled out in any talk on a technology. Maybe I didn’t set up the discussion well enough, and should have devoted more time to the broad history of the mouse’s evolution, listed the various technical innovations, the zeroed in on the mouse buttons. Perhaps I’ll try that next time.

Other issues from the talk

Someone also asked “where’s the military in all this?” I think the answer is that the military really is pretty completely absent from the whole story. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that Air Force psychologists have done that influences cockpit design, but so far as I know, no input device company has a significant history of working for the military; and the uses of the mouse in, say, a quartermaster’s depot or a JAG office are probably not significantly different from those in a law office.

Now, there is a broader piece of contextualization that I definitely need to do, which is this: place the evolution of the mouse in the larger context of the evolution of other kinds of computer input devices (joysticks, trackpads, trackballs, that red dot that IBM loves); and place that whole family of devices in the context of the broader range of machine interface/input devices. This definitely has to include Nintendo and other game devices, and the question is whether one has to go back in time to talk about typewriters and other stuff. What I want at the end is a timeline of devices, or a set of pictures showing the ecology of input technologies, maybe along the lines of the graphics that Wiebe Bijker uses in his bicycle study, maybe something else. (But, of course, I like timelines.)

Someone brought this exact point (about contextualization) up in the Q&A; I should e-mail them and ask what devices they would look at.

I also got one question about whether there was an age cohort issue here: whether these skills were confined to kids, or distributed more evenly through the consuming population. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the PDAs are probably used by grownups, while the game pads are more familiar to younger users. So that helps answer that question.

When I get back to California, I should start making plans to put the Apple mouse archive up on this site, and block out what a larger mouse history site should be like. Indeed, I had the brainstorm that I should do with the materials I collect in this project exactly what I did with the Mac stuff, namely put it up online. (Maybe I can find some decent free indexing program to index it� I think you might be able to do that with Google?) The blog is interesting if one is interesting in following me thinking about the subject, but the more interesting, and certainly the more enduring, stuff will be the papers, pictures, etc. And I’m sure Stanford won’t mind if I put up the stuff on the Apple mouse; after all, I was the one who created it all.

The other thing I’ll need to do is construct a style sheet, graphic, and nav bar for the mouse history site. I think maybe taking a slice of the Douglas Dayton exploded view of the mouse would yield something nice, but of course with the style sheet I can swap graphics in and out as my heart desires. And I assume I can tell Blogger to use the local style sheet; that should just be a matter of customizing the template.

I wish I’d thought of this when I was doing the Mac history project. It would have been extremely cool, and a way of merging a couple different emerging cyberphenomena. I don’t think I need to worry about any of my academic colleagues doing something like this: as much as they might want to become public intellectuals, the idea of being intellectual in public– of just putting up their day-to-day notes– would never occur to them. We’ll see if the practice has any real value.

The postacademic history of science talk generated an interesting set of responses: more theoretical, and more focused on the craft work of professional services, than the usual “how can I do that?” or “how can you do that?” questions. There were a bunch of professors there, which I think really changed the dynamic. But afterwards, I had the usual single student come up and ask me where he should send his resume, and who to talk to.


Cornell is, as they like to put it, “centrally isolated:” the middle of nowhere, in other words. Compared to Williamstown, where I spent a year, Ithaca is a veritable metropolis, Manhattan on the Cayuga. But compared to Silicon Valley, it’s dangerously wild and overgrown, shockingly close to a Rousseau-like primitive state of nature. I was constantly reminded of the Woody Allen line, “I am at two with nature.”

It’s a cool place, though, an interesting mix of academic cultures. I’m always amazed at how different the local cultures of American universities can be; we support a tremendously diverse institutional ecology. While walking around the campus, I finally realized how Cornell seemed familiar: in institutional terms, it’s midway between Penn and UC Davis, a blend of Ivy League and land grant university. Of course, other private schools have a little of this mix: Harvard and Yale both had science schools that were subsidized under the Morrill Land Grant Act. But the influence of the public institutions on the university, and in particular its ag school facilities, make it a lot more like Davis.