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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/3485/the-mouse-and-the-market/

The Mouse and the Market

April 18, 2005 by

As the history of the computer mouse shows, the problem is not a lack of technology. The problem is making it economically viable. Consider the history of the computer mouse, which was invented long ago but sat in the laboratory waiting for someone to improve it and make it accessible to consumers via that crucial ingredient: capital investment. Contrary to the usual claims, the accumulation and investment of capital is far more important to the progress of civilization than R&D alone. [Full Article]


Dennis Sperduto April 18, 2005 at 11:05 am

Along the line of the argument presented in this article, not only does commercialization require capital, but once an invention/innovation has been commercialized, additional substantial capital is required for it to be utilized by busineesses in production. In other words, the firms that desire to utilize the productivity enhancing equipment, must themselves have and then invest the financial capital to purchase the equipment. At any given point in time, the vast majority of businesses could improve their productivity by investing in additional, already commercialized equipment, but this investment obviously requires financial capital, which may or may not be available. Again, the scarcity of capital is the overriding problem. I believe this was a point that Mises also tended to stress.

Stephen W. Carson April 18, 2005 at 12:00 pm

A reader shares this interesting comment:

Wrt Rothbard claiming, “there is always an unused shelf of technological projects available and idle.”, in case you are keeping a file, I will offer you another example. For a while I worked for a competitor to DuPont’s polyesther fiber division. Our company came up with a unique fiber based on the design of the pulling die. After feverish work for 6 months this was ready to offer to the public, and it sold well for a few months until DuPont came out with a more economical competitor. Several years later one of our engineers asked a DuPont engineer how they were able to do that so quickly. His answer was that DuPont had dozens of such inventions on the shelf, but that they only used them as they needed to in order to maintain their market share!

Timm Engel April 18, 2005 at 1:32 pm

Readers interested in the history of steam should Google up the article “Blasco de Garay’s 1543 Steamship” from the Steam Engine Library web site.

Eric Taylor April 18, 2005 at 1:37 pm

Back around 1969, I was working on an E&S (Evans and Sutherland) state of the art line drawing and raster graphics computer system (serial number below 10). I was the systems programmer and we had some of the top computer graphics people (Jim Blinn et. al.) working on creating animated movies. The graphics hardware in those days was considered a peripheral device and was hooked up to a 16 bit pdp-11 computer.

I used to laugh at how silly my boss was when he thought using a pen and tablet to place menus on the screen was so cool. I was a command line sort of guy and thought that using such an expensive piece of hardware just to avoid typing some simple commands was a foolish waste of our precious resources.

But my biggest laugh was on my friend Julian, who wrote a one of a kind GUI text editor (called Herman, as I recall) that used the 3d line drawing system to edit text. It used all the hardware it could muster. The 6 large black dials were used for scrolling the text up/down, left and right, and even in and out. The 3D-transformation hardware was used to zoom in and out (effecting font size). The pen selected text and moved the cursor. But funniest (and most clever to my thinking) was that it used the extra memory in the raster graphics frame buffer to store text since 16 bit computers were so memory limited. We could watch the text being moved around in memory as little dots on the raster graphics monitors. I joked that his text editor only ran on one system that cost nearly a million bucks.

I never guessed that this technology that was so over the top in 1969 would revolutionize the computer industry. After all, who could want more than the text adventure games that we played instead of working. But it was the entrepreneur that took these ideas and made them more than just a few programmer tricks. As we all know, Zerox didn’t know how to do this, while Apple did. And what of E&S? I don’t know where they are now. Some of our graphics people left a few years later to go to work for a company that built something called a Pixar. It was then that some of these idle projects were taken off the shelf and brought to light.

Eric Taylor April 18, 2005 at 7:17 pm

woops, make that 1979. 26 years at one workplace is more than enough.

Nathan Tippy April 18, 2005 at 7:56 pm

As someone in the open source community there is much more that we should be taking away from the piece. We are keenly aware that our employers will not pay for every ‘cool’ idea we think up to enhance a product. Nor do I think they should, In order to meet the greatest need in the market place they must balance the time to market and the number of features. I bring this up to remind ourselves that there continue to be (and will always be) great software ideas that aught to be implemented but haven’t been because of funding constraints. Think about your favorite open source project. There are probably many bullet points on the to-do list but not enough engineers to complete them so some get left undone. Not everyone has the time (capital) to volunteer to projects. Keep this in mind.

It’s easy to get open source lurkers to tell the development team ‘how it should be done’. It’s much harder to get them to cough up some cash or lend a hand to complete the work. This is always a scarce resource especially when compared to the vast pool of ideas that come from the human mind. Spend your limited resources wisely.

Ross Elliot April 18, 2005 at 11:05 pm

An interesting corollary to this chicken before the egg, capital before commercialisation perspective is the plight of former communist bloc countries where a highly educated populace made no difference to the economic performance or living standard becuase without the freedom of action and ability to form capital, education and skills are relatively impotent.

Tom Borawski April 19, 2005 at 9:09 am

While working as undergraduate at Columbia University, Howard
Armstrong invented the first practical radio receiver
that used the then state-of-the-art Audion tube.
This invention required no capital infusion outside
of his father’s assistance in paying his tuition.
Indeed, Armstrong lost a bitter patent fight with Lee DeForrest
because his father insisted he graduate from Columbia before
he would give him the money to this most fundemental of radio’s building blocks.
Later Armstrong would invent FM radio whose development was funded in part from
his earlier work.

Brian Gladish April 19, 2005 at 3:11 pm

It never ceases to amaze me that a segment of libertarians tends to dismiss innovation. What the story of the mouse illustrates is that there was one Douglas Engelbart who had a relatively complete vision that he could not bring to fruition by himself. Then, later, when others realized the value of that vision, capital was applied to make it available to more and more people. At that point there were many engineers, having been told what to work on, that made the mouse commercially viable.

It is simply a case of supply and demand – there are few Engelbarts and many engineers at Hovey-Kelley, along with thousands of investors supplying the monetary capital. The person in the equation who is the most difficult to replace (unless you are willing to wait an indefinite amount of time) is Engelbart. Any product that we use is the sum total of a great deal of prior work (see Newton’s quote on seeing further), but without the first idea, they would not exist.

As a side note, I think that a sales-oriented person would say “Invest all the capital you want. Without a salesman, you are sunk!” In his view you are over-valuing capital.

P.M.Lawrence April 20, 2005 at 10:50 am

The mouse’s success was definitely from marketing; practically no improvement was ever done on it. In fact, it presents so many ergonomic difficulties (see the late Jef Raskin’s Humane Interface work) that it is clear it will one day be superseded unless the inertia of an established base is enough to prevent it as with the famous QWERTY/Dvorak keyboard or videotape format battles. Far more work was done on the ergonomics of the telephone handset back in the ’30s.

Oh, my personal experience of mouse use is that, since I am a “holder” and not a “toucher”, I get muscular stress from trying to hold the sides of the mouse and yet hold back my fingers from clamping down. It enforces a Procrustean touch approach, just like modern telephone handsets you can’t comfortably grip. That’s great for some people, but like I said, it’s Procrustean and doesn’t cater for all. One size fits all is the wrong approach to ergonomics. I would use a pen if only the software hadn’t co-evolved with mice; pens can co-exist comfortably with the likes of pie menus and the like, but not with today’s standard approaches.

zuzu April 21, 2005 at 12:38 am

a lack of capitalization kept Charles Babbage and his analytical engine, essentially a computer 100 years before computers, in relative obscurity.


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