Mighty Mouse

In 1980, Apple Computer asked a group of guys fresh from Stanford's product design program to take a $400 device and make it mass-producible, reliable and cheap. Their work transformed personal computing.

March/April 2002

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Mighty Mouse

Kevin Candland

Dean Hovey was hungry. His young industrial design firm, Hovey-Kelley Design, had been working on projects for Apple Computer for a couple of years but wanted to develop entire products, not just casings and keyboards. Hovey had come to pitch Apple co-founder Steven Jobs some ideas. But before he could get started, the legendary high-tech pioneer interrupted him. “Stop, Dean,” Hovey recalls Jobs saying. “What you guys need to do, what we need to do together, is build a mouse.”

Hovey was dumbfounded. A what?

Jobs told him about an amazing computer, code-named Alto, he had just seen at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In early 1980, most computers (including Apple’s) required users to memorize text commands to perform tasks. The Alto had a graphical user interface—a symbolic world with little pictures of folders, documents and other icons—that users navigated with a handheld input device called a mouse. Jobs explained that Apple was working on two computers, named Lisa and Macintosh, that would bring that technology to market. The mouse would help revolutionize computers, making them more accessible to ordinary people. “When I walked out that door,” recalls Hovey, ’78, MS ’85, “I was ready to change the world.”

Just one problem: a commercial mouse based on the Xerox technology cost $400, malfunctioned regularly and was nearly impossible to clean. That device—a descendant of the original computer mouse invented by Douglas Englebart at the Stanford Research Institute in the early 1960s—was a masterpiece of high-concept technology, but a hopeless product. Jobs wanted a mouse that could be manufactured for $10 to $35, survive everyday use and work on his jeans. “We thought maybe Steve wasn’t getting enough meat in his diet,” says Jim Sachs, a founding member of Hovey-Kelley, “but for $25 an hour, we’d design a solar-powered toaster if that’s what he wanted.” The toaster probably would have been easier. Jobs wanted Hovey-Kelley to take a piece of technology developed by some of Silicon Valley’s greatest minds, dramatically improve its reliability and cut its price by more than 90 percent.

They did. The mouse’s evolution “from the laboratory to the living room,” as one of its designers puts it, is not well known—even some Apple fanatics aren’t familiar with it—but it reveals something of the personalities of its designers, the Stanford program that trained them and even the history of Silicon Valley. Everyone knows that the University has helped shape the region, but the influence is often described as a function of great individuals like Frederick Terman, specific inventions like the klystron or an accident of geography. The story of the mouse demonstrates the impact of a particular academic program—product design—on the Valley.

When Hovey-Kelley was asked to design the Apple mouse, the firm was a two-year-old start-up. Hovey and David Kelley, as well as most of the firm’s other early members, had met as graduate students in Stanford’s product design program. An interdisciplinary program that combines mechanical engineering, art and, often, math, physics and psychology, it was founded in 1958 by Robert McKim. McKim, ’48, was an industrial designer rebelling against the “styling illness” he saw as common in his field. He wanted his students to go deep, to think about aesthetics, technology, users and economics. “Bob McKim was trying to create little Leonardo da Vincis, people who were skilled in many things and diverse enough to create a whole product,” Hovey says.

The post-Sputnik years were a good time to be a rebel with a cause at Stanford; federal research money flowed freely and ambitious administrators like then-provost Terman, ’20, Engr. ’22, and engineering dean Joseph Pettit, Engr. ’40, PhD ’42, could afford to support unusual departments. “There is always room in a university for one maverick program,” McKim says. Its oddball status allowed the program to move into promising new areas quickly. The invention of the microprocessor in 1974 opened up new ways to combine electronics with mechanical design, even novel ways of thinking about the relationship between a product’s form and its function. McKim’s colleague Larry Leifer, ’62, MS ’63, PhD ’69, started a “smart products” course to explore this territory; Kelley, MS ’78, and Sachs, MS ’79, were among its first teaching assistants.

McKim won not only the support of his superiors, but also the affection of his students. “If McKim had been a Nazi artist, I’d be a Nazi artist now,” Kelley says. McKim’s engineering-school colleagues, however, didn’t necessarily share his passion. “My peers thought I was pretty strange,” McKim says. “And the design division was kind of strange, and loved being strange.”

That strangeness led in some surprising but fruitful directions. In the 1960s, McKim participated in studies of the impact of psychedelics on creativity, co-authored a book called Altered States of Consciousness and founded a medical instruments company. This blend of entrepreneurialism and counterculture might have been unusual in academia, but it brought the product design program in sync with the emerging personal computer industry, whose leaders also mixed cultural radicalism with high tech. Both groups shared a faith that scruffy genius could succeed where conventional expertise failed, both preferred late nights in the machine shop or lab to meetings, and both saw themselves as outsiders, whether from the conventional design world or from corporate America.

That preference for late nights came in handy in the spring of 1980, when Hovey-Kelley’s offices fairly hummed with activity. Hovey, the mouse project’s informal head, says he “hacked together” the first conceptual prototype in a weekend—using the ball from a bottle of Ban Roll-On deodorant and a butter dish purchased at the Palo Alto Walgreens (“the mouse parts store,” he calls it). That wasn’t the only unusual source of components: one morning, his wife discovered that their refrigerator no longer worked because portions of the motor had gone into a mouse prototype. Not to be outdone, Kelley took the stick shift off his BMW when he was experimenting with mouse shapes. “We all did the same thing,” explains Sachs, who with Rickson Sun focused on the electrical and optical components. “We sacrificed circuitry, we sacrificed anything. The idea of [formally] designing something and having everything fabricated to your specifications was simply too long, slow and expensive.” Better to “take apart something else, or find something similar, and glue it together or cut it in half.”

This approach was a textbook example of “rapid prototyping,” or building something quickly to test one’s ideas, relying more on models and materials than formal specifications. A cornerstone of the product design program, it was a method well suited to imagination-rich but cash-poor freelancers and start-ups. And it encouraged ferocious concentration. Explains Hovey: “When you’re in one of those modes where you’re building something and you need a part, you figure, ‘Either I can stop and wait, or I can go forward and wreck [the refrigerator]. But it’ll be $20 to fix it—it’s no big deal.’ When you’re in the midst of the passion of designing, you just do it.”

The designers also drew insights from unexpected directions. The company had set up shop in a $90-a-month office on the second floor of a downtown Palo Alto building (and as Kelley recalls, “we were scared to death, paying $90 a month”). The aging building’s uneven floors helped Hovey reach the first breakthrough in simplifying the mouse’s design. He was trying to eliminate the precision part that the Xerox PARC mouse used to push the ball onto the table. As Hovey watched balls roll off his gently tilted table, he realized, “That’s exactly what I want it to do: I want it to roll without slipping.” The ball didn’t need to be pushed; it could float. “We’d barely [need to] touch it to get the information about where it was moving,” Hovey says.

Sachs, who had taken some electrical engineering classes as an undergraduate, designed an optical encoder system that used rollers, light-emitting diodes and phototransistors to track the ball’s motion; this reduced the number of moving parts in the mouse and lowered the cost. Sun, ’78, MS ’78, added an idler wheel with a spring-loaded roller to make sure the ball and encoders kept in contact.

By late spring, “we had solved a number of problems,” Sachs says. But the designers worried that “we had created something that required such precision it probably couldn’t be mass-produced.” As students, the group had often been assigned difficult, even dangerous, exercises: build a Rube Goldberg-like device, design a one-wheeled vehicle for a race down Sand Hill Road. The mouse had evolved into a similar bundle of odd challenges. Electronics were normally expensive and high-tolerance, or inexpensive and low-tolerance; the mouse would have to be cheap and precise. Even the cord posed problems: electric cords were normally either flexible or strong, but the mouse cord needed to be both.

The designers needed something that could keep these contradictory demands from breaking the mouse. Jim Yurchenco proposed connecting the electronics and optics to a single plastic platform, which could keep them in correct alignment and protect them from shocks. Yurchenco, MFA ’75, had studied sculpture as a graduate student, and his experience with crafting three-dimensional shapes made him the obvious person to design this platform, nicknamed the rib cage. (Most of the mouse parts had in-house nicknames—the exterior cover was the fur, the cord the tail—but rib cage was the only one that stuck.) Yurchenco did most of the work in his head—a tour de force of 3-D visualization abilities, according to others on the project. Not only did the tiny parts have precise specifications, but Yurchenco had to make it possible for assembly-line workers to snap them onto the rib cage. The rib cage pushed the state of the art in tooling and injection molding. “There were a lot of very small features that had to be crammed into a very small space,” Yurchenco says, “and building a mold to do that was complex. Nobody had actually done this before.” But once the mold was made, the rib cage could be mass-produced, to exacting tolerances, for pennies a unit. Yurchenco also designed a ring on the bottom of the mouse that users could remove to take out the ball and clean the rollers without touching the electronics.

The group turned its attention to the exterior design in the summer. Kelley and Douglas Dayton made prototype shapes out of wood or plastic, ranging from square mice to wedge-shaped mice to one complete with “two little eyes like a mouse,” Kelley remembers. “Apple rejected it completely.” After conducting user tests, Dayton, MS ’79, and Apple designer Bill Dresselhaus, MS ’74, produced the final exterior design. Apple also decided to reduce the number of buttons from three to one after discovering that users had trouble remembering which was which. The mouse was finished in early 1981. Naturally, the designers showed it to Bob McKim, who declared it “an elegant solution, very ingenious.” Looking back, he observes that the mouse project was “a stretch” for his former students, “but not too much of one. There is such a thing as the interesting project that’s a little bit beyond your capability, but not so much beyond that you fail.”

Fail? Hardly. The Apple mouse transformed personal computing. Although the expensive Lisa flopped, the Macintosh, released in 1984, made the graphical user interface the industry standard. Microsoft responded with Windows, and its own mouse—also engineered by Jim Yurchenco. “We made a mouse mass-producible, reliable and inexpensive,” says Sachs, “and hundreds of millions of them have been made.”

The mouse established Hovey-Kelley’s reputation, and its influence continues to resonate in the successor company, IDEO . “The most sought-after projects in the company are the ones in areas where we don’t have a lot of experience,” says Kelley, who now divides his time between IDEO and Stanford, where he is an associate professor in the product design program. (Sun, Yurchenco and Dayton also are still with IDEO; Hovey and Sachs have since founded other companies.) The mouse, Hovey says, “had the right balance of mechanical design, ergonomic design, software design and electronic design that really mapped well with the generalist, mini-da Vincis that Hovey-Kelley had. Even down to the tactile aspect of the click, it was a perfectly scaled project for a Stanford product designer.”

The click? What’s so important about that? From a mechanical point of view, the button was simple, but Hovey-Kelley’s attention to it is illuminating. The feel of the mouse shaped the experience of using the Lisa and Macintosh, and the button defined the experience of using the mouse. A rugged detector and encoding system, a rib cage to hold the electronics and mechanical parts together, and a removable cleaning ring were all necessary to make a mouse that would work. Paying attention to the subtle ergonomics and aesthetics of the button was necessary to make a mouse that would be used. Getting the button right—giving it an audible “click” to tell users how far to push, figuring out how far it should depress, making it responsive but not so sensitive that it could be accidentally activated—meant getting the mouse right. It was part of what Sachs calls “the Zen of the product,” the hard-to-describe qualities that shape the experience of using a technology. We normally think of technologies as mere applied science, reducible to drawings and parts lists; but as Sachs explains, every device has a ghost of “intangible intellectual property about how something works that you simply can’t document, or things where language fails us. The Zen of the product is something you can’t write down.”

That might help explain why the story of the Apple mouse isn’t widely known. It would seem to have all the ingredients of a good Silicon Valley story—young protagonists, innovation to burn, a wildly successful product, a Steve Jobs cameo—but product design just isn’t something journalists or historians tend to write about. It’s supposed to be invisible:the work designers do belongs to their clients. It’s the reverse of fashion, in which the designers are household names and the producers are anonymous. Companies may actually forget that they were clients—in fact, the first patent Apple filed on its mouse mistakenly assigned sole credit to an Apple employee. But it’s more than that. Even in histories of Apple, “the mouse gets lost and is just sort of there,” Sachs says. “Those of us involved in the design actually smile at that, because our objective was to make it seamless and invisible,” he says. “The fact that the mouse was unobtrusive and natural is the result of a lot of work.” Few users ever notice the heft of the cord, or the effect the connector linking the cord to the mouse has on the mouse’s agility, or the silence of the ball as it moves across the desk. But they’re not supposed to. It’s the peculiar fate of good design to erase traces of itself; bad design is far more noticeable (remember the first iMac mouse?). As proud as the designers are of the mouse’s popularity, they’re even prouder of its invisibility.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, a visiting scholar at Stanford and author of the forthcoming Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions.

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