Biography: of mice and turtles

The origins of screen navigation devices

This is a page about the origins of screen navigation via pointing devices such as the mouse, an example (or variant, like a trackball) of which you probably have in your hand right now, and the primary alternative method—the turtle. How we navigate digital space (including the screen in front of you or on your mobile) has been largely determined by what our senses can and cannot accept as real, and the history of computer interface design is a fascinating documentation of our gradual acceptance of digital dimensions as an extension to everyday reality.

The 1960's mouse…

Doug Engelbart at the (then) Stanford Research Institute designed a mouse in 1964, and - using the mouse - demonstrated in what is now known as The Mother Of All Demos tele-conferencing, remote document collaboration and other features we now take for granted, in 1968. Yes, that's right… video conferencing in 1968 (you have to poke around a bit to find the video - this links to the correct section on the page). So what have we been playing about at in between? Well, according to a well-quoted talk by Alan Kay (It is easier to invent the future than to predict it) at Etech 2003 we haven't really progressed much since then. In the 1980s the Apple mouse was made into a mass-produced object.

Turtle programming

Another early (and surviving) candidate for screen navigation, the turtle, is a pointer that moves around the screen in response to either cursor keys or sets of programmed instructions, written to be followed from the turtle's point of view; so repeat 4 [forward 50 right 90] will draw a square, no matter if the turtle starts out pointing 72° to the left or is straight up - in the former case, the square will also end up being angled at 72°.

The turtle is now primarily used in Logo, an application for drawing on screen according to Lisp-derived programmable instructions, largely used to support maths and programming in education (Picciotto 1997). Spinoff projects include Lego Logo and its successor Programmable Bricks; and Elicia, a Logo-based language for describing and animating 3D scenes. I was addicted to the (reasonable) implementation of Logo on my 1980's Amstrad PCW 8256 - my introduction to human-readable programming.

The turtle in digital art

Artist Harold Cohen initially used an external turtle to make drawings on the floor from his artificial intelligence painting programme Aaron (it travelled around the surface, drawing as it went), but he abandoned it […] because the turtle, being cute, drew attention during exhibitions from the artwork it was drawing (Stevens 1993).

Created: 22 December 2004. Updated: 06aug2010, 14jul2020, 26apr2021

an image of Doug Engelbart's first mouse design, circa 1964

Mouse links

Turtle/Logo links

Other references