Sometimes it's possible to be a little too ahead of your time. Case in point: The patent on the first computer mouse expired in 1987 - shortly before the device became ubiquitous among computer users. Because it was patented before there was a need for it, the mouse's inventor inadvertently missed out on making a mint from his mouse. (The mouse only became commercially available in 1984, with the introduction of Apple's Macintosh PC.)
Doug Engelbart, who recently passed away at the age of 88, invented the computer mouse in the late 1960s. His mouse consisted of a wooden shell housing two metal wheels, and it was a big part of a 1968 event in San Francisco that has come to be called the "Mother of All Demos": Engelbert and his fellow researchers demonstrated several precursors of modern computing technologies, such as hypertext links, windows, desktop sharing, and of course the mouse.
The result of this groundbreaking demonstration was that most attendees thought Engelbert was an utter crackpot. (This wasn't a new problem for Engelbert: As an acting assistant professor at UC-Berkeley in the 1950s, he was cautioned by by a colleague that he'd never go far if he kept talking about his "wild ideas.")
But Engelbert persevered, and patented his computer mouse in 1970 as an "X-Y position indicator for a display system." That patent expired in 1987. Billions of computer mice have been sold since then.
Engelbert didn't completely miss out, however. In 1997, he won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize - the most lucrative award for American inventors. And in 2000, he received the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton for "creating the foundations of personal computing."
What's more, the mouse wasn't the only breakthrough technology he helped introduce: As a researcher who was part of a research team partially funded by NASA, Engelbert was one of the scientists who helped develop ARPAnet - the precursor to the Internet.
Engelbert also helped develop the NLS, or "oN Line System," for computer networking - and it was reportedly inspired by the radar screens he used in the Navy during World War II.
"When you consider the crude type of computer equipment he had to work with, it was amazing," says Stuart Card, who worked at the Xerox PARC research center in the 1970s and regularly collaborated with Engelbert.
So while he may not have made a mint from a mouse, Doug Engelbert helped pioneer many of the computing technologies that make our work and home lives easier. His is a life and career worth celebrating, and an inspiration to every inventor who has ever been accused of having "wild ideas."