Whatever happened to …

… mice with balls?

Or should that be mouses with balls?  It’s a term that I’ve sort of struggled with and I know that there are people with strong opinions on either side of the argument.  For me, “mice” just rolls off the tongue better for me.

It’s hard to imagine but long timers will remember that there was a time when computers didn’t have mice or other pointing devices.  On computers, we used to learn all the keyboard shortcuts.  I know that I did religiously and still use them for many activities.  I find that they keep me more productive rather than reaching whenever I need to perform some action.  In Ontario schools, the first computers were the Unisys Icon which used a trackball and action keys rather than a mouse.  It was a pretty productive way of doing things.  But, its days were numbered.  It was time to end the bowling alley paradigm.

We’d heard about a pilot project that the Board of Education for the City of Windsor was involved with at their Dougall Avenue Public School.  It involved IBM computers with these mouse things attached.  Off we went to investigate.  Staying on top of trends, we knew this was the future for control of a computer.  But, we’d also heard the things that lores are made of.  Supposedly, students were taking the balls from the bottom of the mice and they were so solid that you could break a car windshield if you shot them from a slingshot.  I’ve never been able to confirm this story.  And, as a city friend pointed out to me at the time, it wouldn’t happen because we were “county schools”.  What could happen?  Someone shoot at a tractor?  Grrrrr.

Anyway, we ended up purchasing computers with balls in the mice and used them everywhere.  In the hands of a real expert, they could navigate software very quickly.  I would argue that the super experts with their WordPerfect template of keyboard shortcuts were even faster…

So, some memories from those years…

  • students did indeed take the balls from the mice
  • the genius who came up with the idea of Super Glue to keep the cover in place should have been fired.  Just saying
  • every mouse came with a driver on diskette.  It’s a nice feature in the home computer market but a storage nightmare when you’re buying so many at once
  • early users had to learn how to work the mouse with their right hand.  The left and right mouse buttons were fixed.  I had a left-handed friend point out that it was just another slap in the face for the left-handed person in a right-handed world.  Further insults came when the drivers could be adjusted for the left-handed but the IT people locked the user out of the Control Panel
  • in our purchase orders, we would ask that every mouse came with a mouse pad.  The thought was that the pad would grip the mouse ball better than sliding it over a student desk.  Very quickly, you’d develop the skill of picking the mouse up as you approached the edge of the mouse pad to bring it back to the centre without your cursor jumping all over the place
  • mouse balls had to be cleaned regularly.  They’d accumulate cruft from the mouse pad that would transfer to the rollers inside the mouse to make the magic work.  Ever tried to do that when the cover was Super Glued into place?
  • there’s no nice way of saying this – mouse pads are filthy desktop objects.  Even those designer ones that people would glum from vendors or conferences
  • just when you think you’ve got a plan, things changed.  The original mouse came with serial connectors.  Then, there was specification for a mouse connector.  Then, it just became another USB connector.  Then, there was the ability to connect via bluetooth.  Your mouse became trapped (get it?).  Either upgrade or this whole new business of adapters took off

Then Apple comes along with the Macintosh.  “We don’t need no stinking right button”.  Our mice come with a ball but only one mouse button.  There’s your solution for lefties!  But, along comes software like Microsoft Word that required a right mouse click generated by a combination of keyboard and mouse click!

Not to be outdone, IBM came along with a terrific concept.  They incorporated a track point in the middle of the keyboard.  You could move your cursor with the end of your finger.  The tradition continues today with some Lenovo models.

In the day, there was nothing like a brand new mouse with a ball.  At the same time, there was nothing like a mouse with a dirty ball.  In schools, guess which one was more frequent?

Modern operating systems give you far more functionality with your mouse.  It’s not just for left-clicking.


So, here’s your change to have a kick at this old technology for a Sunday.

  • what was the first pointing device that you used?
  • think of your computing the past week.  Do you always reach for a mouse or are you still a keyboard shortcut user?
  • did you ever own a really fancy mouse pad?  Can you describe it?
  • have you ever had to use an adapter just to get your mouse (or any other peripheral for that matter) to work?
  • mice or mouses?  Weigh in

Surely you have an old mouse story to share in the comments below.

I should note that this post is edited from the original post.  I’ll call this one Part I.  Make sure that you comment to help me frame Part II for next week.

Check out the entire collection of Sunday morning memories here. And, if you’re so inclined, through a suggestion in the Padlet.


Published by dougpete

The content of this blog is created by me at the keyboard or as a result of an aggregator of my daily reading under the title OTR Links. On Fridays, look for my signature post "This Week in Ontario Edublogs" where I try to share some great writing from Ontario Educators. The other regular post appears Sunday mornings as I try to start a conversation about things that have gone missing from our daily lives.

6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …

  1. I never thought that there could be this many mouse stories, and now I hear you have a Part 2. Intriguing Doug. The ball mouse was my first pointing device. I think I still have one around here somewhere. And I vaguely remember trying to clean the balls through the little holes on the bottom when I couldn’t get the covers off. I still use my track pad most of the time, but do rely on some keyboard shortcuts for ease, like the ones for cut and paste. But then it’s a whole new system on an iPad, which I use a lot as well. Curious to hear other people’s mouse stories. I do always appreciate this weekly walk down memory lane.


    P.S. I’m going with mice, not mouses. I have to default to the grammar rules I know so well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For most of my computing life, the mouse has been there. I’m trying to remember if there was a terminal somewhere at UofT that might’ve had a trackball? Or more likely it was a video game in an arcade somewhere? Certainly there were those left right up-and-down buttons on Space Invaders, and there would’ve been steering wheels on racing games? Pong had a one-dimensional joystick.

    However, the first computer that I ever used with the pointing device would’ve been a Mac, in 1984. I still remember thinking at the time how much sense it made to be able to draw on the screen without having to specify coordinates. It was a natural progression for the folks who gravitated to the exhibit on the low-to-the-ground, red, round kid friendly table; draw with a pencil, draw with a mouse. It was the way of the future!

    So I’m a big fan of the mouse, and I use it a lot. I use keyboard shortcuts for the timesavers like cut, paste, copy, undo. I’m happy we live in a world where we no longer need to use ctrl+S anymore. Even ctrl+P has pretty much gone by the wayside. But when I need that one, I confess it’s always a File>Print for me using the mouse. I use the mouse and the menus to find pretty much anything these days, as typically that’s what I’m doing — actually looking for the specific command or solution to what I want to do. (And don’t get me started on Microsoft’s ribbon, it can literally take me 20 to 30 seconds or more to find something in that. The lack of standard menus doesn’t work for me in the latest Office 365. But I digress.)

    My most fancy and favourite mouse pad of all time would’ve been a red, apple-shaped mouse pad that I found in a computer store somewhere. I carefully used scissors to cut the requisite bite out of the right-hand side so that it would have the proper Apple logo profile. I’m 99% certain it is safely stowed with my original Mac in the big rectangular carry bag in my Apple museum/cupboard.

    The original Apple mice used their ADB serial connecter until they switched to USB in the late 90s. At work, our PCs would’ve had the original multi pin serial connectors before moving to PS2 and finally USB. At one point, I was using some USB to PS2 adapters so that I could run several computers via a mass of KVM cables. It was always a hassle having to have extra keyboards connected because the KVM system typically wasn’t detected by the PCs until after they were booted and logged into. I think those cables went to the e-waste last month.

    I remember when Apple introduced the trackball on their notebooks and moved the keyboard back toward the screen, simultaneously providing wrist rests and central thumb access to the trackball. It was brilliant design. For years after that I marvelled whenever I saw a PC laptop with the keyboard still jammed up at the front and the little pencil eraser track point sticking out of the middle keys. When Apple moved to the trackpad, it was just icing on the cake.

    Regarding the one-button versus two-button debate, I lived within the Mac’s ctrl-click world for a while before replacing the Apple mouse with a two-button Logitech mouse. Over the years I’ve tried out each of Apple’s successive generations of mice, and I’ve always been happy with a two-button Logitech scroll-wheel mouse. Currently, I have a gaming mouse (a hand-me-up from one of my sons) that has some extra buttons at the thumb, but I happily use it for pointing, left- and right-clicking, and scrolling.

    Over the years I’ve become quite proficient using the trackpad on my Mac laptop when I am away from my desk. I could check my computer bag for a mouse, and there should be one there, but it is a rare occasion when I plug it in when I am mobile. I would probably only want it if I were doing an extended Minecraft session.

    With the addition of gestures to the trackpad functionality on Apple MacBooks, I now have an Apple trackpad and mouse sitting on either side of my keyboard at home. With the addition of the new Touch Bar on the latest MacBooks, I’m waiting until Apple releases an external keyboard with the Touch Bar before upgrading my notebook. I can see where having that functionality would be most valuable, but I wouldn’t want to reach over to my laptop just to use it. (The pointing device returns to the keyboard!) We shall see how pointing continues to evolve.

    BTW, it was a great marketing moment when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, and emphasized how it came with the most natural pointing device, namely our finger. More recently, I’ve tried the Apple Pencil, and it works wonderfully for drawing with the iPad Pro, but for day-to-day use, touchscreens don’t need no stylus.

    The mouse pointer, coordinated by hand that’s not between your eyes and the screen, has been a game changer in the field of computing.

    Long live the mouse!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mice for sure.

    I think my first pointing device was a light pen for a Tektronix CRT. Green lines on a black screen but it was graphics! A huge step up from the ASR 33 terminals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletype_Model_33) we had been using. Next was a mouse on an early Mac. I thought that was pretty cool. The mouse that came with my DEC Rainbow 100 was even better. For a long time I was a trackball person. I thought that was better than a mouse.

    These days I do a lot with the touch pad on my laptops but still use a mouse for some things. I have touch screens on my laptops but somehow that just doesn’t work as well for me as other devices.

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  4. Thanks, everyone for sharing your thoughts about your world using a mouse with balls.

    Aviva – I sympathize with your experience of cleaning a mouse where the lid doesn’t remove!

    Andy – I think you missed talking about the Magic Mouse.

    Alfred – I tend to agree with your thoughts about a touch screen on a laptop. I thought that would be the ultimate but now that I have one, I find that I just don’t use it.


  5. I remember telling my students in the late 90s that we would have a fundraiser that year so we could buy laser mice – and at the end of the year, we did & there was such joy in the lab!!

    And I will always fondly remember when my friend received an apple from apple & let me be the first to take it out of the box to play with. It had a 1-button mouse! What I loved the most (and still do) is there was a tutorial to use the mouse & you clicked on windows to raise & lower shades in order to click. I still get a kick out of having to click on “windows” to use a “mac!!”


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  6. Oh….it was the line about “cruft” that took me back. I remember the joy of popping out those balls, and delinting the cavity. Mice with dust bunnies – who knew?

    I, too, was a master of the WP commands, but by the time I switched over to Word, I was using a mouse pretty solidly. I’ve noticed with some Chromebooks that without a mouse, it’s easier to go back to commands, as the trackpad doesn’t have right/left click capacity.
    I’ve tweeted a pic of my favourite mouse, mostly to help with the osteo-owie in my thumbs.

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