History of trackball

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Archie
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History of trackball

Post by Archie » 14 Sep 2020 05:39

The trackball first appeared in late 1940 - early 1950, as a part of military radar systems developed in Britain and Canada. Oldest American patent I've found - US 3,013,441, was filed in 1958 by Hughes Aircraft Company:
The present invention relates generally to a radar target tracking control apparatus and relates more specifically to a ball operated mechanism operably connected to suitable mechanical structure, movement of which provides output signals that may be used for control of radar trackers or the like types of devices.
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Interestingly, they've anticipated broader use of that device:
While the control mechanism hereof has been described in connection with radar systems and devices and the positioning of an indication on the face of a cathode ray tube, it is to be understood that the present mechanism may be employed with other structures wherein integrated control is desired.

Different names were used in the beginning: control ball, tracking (or tracker) ball, slew ball, Steuerkugel (in Germany), etc. Finally "trackball" was generally adopted, but seems that English companies still insist on "trackerball" variant. Funny enough, it's often called a mouse, too: as that word is widely used to describe any computer pointing device, some manufacturers even officially added it to their model names, like Roller Mouse, Turbo Mouse, Stationary Mouse and so on. Initially used to control some elements on CRT screens in various military, scientific and industrial equipment, later it found its way into computers: at first the mainframes & workstations, and eventually in personal and home systems. Another "civil" use was gaming: arcade machines, TV consoles and the like.

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First desktop trackballs were slightly different from contemporary ones in arrangement of buttons, most often located above the ball: this design was used in many old models. At those times, such basic GUI routines as pointing and clicking were considered totally separate and independent actions. Because of that, some old reviews claimed that you'll need both hands to operate the trackball, while manufacturers tried to bypass that issue by implementing "click-lock" or "drag" button: still highly inconvenient, but at least better than nothing.

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Development of GUI and influence of mice eventually led to the fundamental ergonomic change: relocation of buttons to zones accessible without removing the fingers from the ball, thus allowing simultaneous controlling of both ("drag" operation). Since that, further development went usual "more ergonomic, more functions" route: numerous different models appeared on the marked to suit any taste.

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It seems the "golden age" of trackballs as a pointing devices in personal computers was approximately from the end of 1980s to the middle of 2000s. Mouse on desktop systems and touchpad on portables have finally won the game, but not completely: the trackballs are still viable option for those who like them. Area where they still dominate - usage cases where the space is limited, stable surface absent, and similar places: like marine and aircraft navigation systems, video editing and medical equipment, for example.

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Also, they are now a frequent choice for users who suffer from the problems caused by many years of excessive "mousing", mostly known as repetitive strain injury.

Some interesting articles related to the history of trackball:

The men who really invented the GUI
by Clive Akass @ Computeractive, 2001
Spoiler
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https://web.archive.org/web/20110816031 ... vented-gui
https://archive.is/rBOv
Like the pulse circuits that provide the heartbeat of computing, the GUI has its roots in early radar systems. It was wartime radar work that got Englebart thinking about dynamic information displays, and radar engineers were the first to encounter the problem of how to use these displays to communicate with an intelligent machine.

Two engineers came up with a trackball, the innards of the mouse, a full 11 years before Englebart unveiled his device. Moreover, it was used to select a position on a screen to convey information to a processor, which is the fundamental operation of a GUI. One of the engineers, 80-year-old Tom Cranston, is still alive and living in Scotland.
Great story: in 1972, needing something like a computer mouse, CERN bought bowling balls to create a homemade trackball.
by John Timmer @ Ars Technica, 2010
Spoiler
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http://web.archive.org/web/201008310818 ... n-1972.ars
http://cdsweb.cern.ch/journal/CERNBulle ... 5855?ln=en
https://imgur.com/a/Dru9R

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At that time, Bent Stumpe was an electronics engineer, newly recruited to work on developments for the SPS Central Control room. One of the things his supervisor asked him to build as soon as possible was a device to control a pointer on a screen, also called a tracker ball.

The heart of the device was the ball that the user would move his hand over, while the cursor followed the corresponding movements on the screen. “We needed very round, well balanced and smoothly moving balls and we thought that bowling balls best met these requirements”, recollects Bent Stumpe. "The SPS control room needed three such devices, plus a prototype, and so an order was placed for four bowling balls. As the firm only wanted to sell a minimum of 12 balls, the order was changed accordingly. This led to discussions with the purchasing office, which required an explanation for such an unusual material request."

This tracker ball was among CERN's first tracking devices. The bowling ball is clearly visible. (Picture 1)
Pointing devices, the ancestors of the tracker ball, already existed at CERN in the 1960s. They were used in the bubble chamber film-scanning devices in the DD Division, where Bent Stumpe worked before joining the SPS Division. “Having conducted careful searches on the web, I realize today that other people in the world had come to similar solutions before me”, he says. Recently, while he was looking for his own tracking device at CERN, Bent found another similar tool that was apparently used by another unit at CERN more or less during the same period. “It has very similar dimensions and seems to use the same optical principle but the designers apparently found another solution to allow smooth movements of the ball”, he explains. While in Bent’s device the big central ball slips over some very small balls to make the movement almost friction-free, in the other device the central ball moves over an air cushion.
Time Machines: The military sphere
by Jon Turi @ Engadget, 2013
Spoiler
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https://www.engadget.com/2013-11-03-time-machines.html

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One of the project's hurdles was finding a way for radar operators to track targets on their displays and extract useful information about heading, speed, altitude and depth. In early 1952, Cranston and Longstaff came up with the idea for a device that used a ball as the main interface, with operators spinning the ball by hand to control the X and Y position of an on-screen cursor. Their first mock-up used a five-pin bowling ball -- only about four to five inches in diameter -- that spun on "air bearings." This trackball gave operators a fast and accurate method of moving a cursor to follow and identify target coordinates.
Briton: 'I invented the computer mouse 20 years before the Americans'
by Jasper Copping @ The Telegraph, 2013
Spoiler
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https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/ ... icans.html
Professor Ralph Benjamin, from Bristol, said he developed the device while developing radar tracking systems for warships, but that the idea was kept confidential by the Admiralty.

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The invention of the mouse has long been credited to Doug Engelbart, who died last week, aged 88. His obituaries recounted how he had first started working on the gadget in 1961, while at the Stanford Research Institute's (SRI's) Augmentation Research Center, in California.
After first trying various options, including a joystick, a knee-operated pointer and a foot-operated control called a "rat", Engelbart's team built a device made from a boxy wooden shell on two wheels, which became the modern mouse.

However, Prof Benjamin, 90, said he had come up with the same concept while working for the Royal Navy Scientific Service. He joined in 1944, working initially at Witley in Surrey and later at Portsdown Hill, near Portsmouth. As the war ended, he was working on a programme called the "Comprehensive Display System" (CDS) to allow ships to monitor low-flying attacking aircraft on a grid using X and Y coordinates. As part of the project, he said he designed a cursor which could be controlled on a display screen using a "mouse-like" instrument. The device, known by his team as a "ball tracker", was different to a modern mouse and closer to a trackball in that it was stationary and worked by a hand being moved across it, rather than being manipulated itself. A prototype was made, using a metallic ball, which rolled on two rubber-coated wheels, controlling the X and Y axis, all housed in a metal casing. In the end, though, the navy opted to use a joystick, instead of the ball tracker. The tracker was described in various internal Admiralty documents, but was kept secret, and not disclosed, explicitly when the technology was patented, in 1946.

Prof Benjamin, 90, said: "The system was an interface between digital data and a display. It therefore needed a cursor that could steer independently to reach a spot and record the position of the data. "I suggested one way of doing it was with a joystick but the other way of doing it was something you rested your palm on, which we would now call a mouse." He added: "The Admiralty at the time were not interested in making profits so they decided to make it confidential by patenting it. Household computers mouse uses something very similar to the version that I thought of to identify data on the screen." Despite seeing little credit for developing the device, Prof Benjamin said he was happy to see it being used so widely around the world. He added: "I am pleased that the basic concept I developed is being used very widely. More widely than I envisaged, because technology at the time was so far removed from the technology we have today. Throughout history, ideas or reinvented or redirected at some point. That is life, and life is a four-letter word after all."

Prof Benjamin, who is Jewish, was born in Germany in 1922, but was sent to boarding school in Switzerland at the age of 14, to avoid Nazi persecution. He later made his way to Britain. His parents were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, he remained working as a scientist in the Royal Navy, and went on to have a distinguished career in defence research, developing several new military technologies. In 1971, he became superintendent director at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in Cheltenham, and was later tasked with briefing Margaret Thatcher on security issues, when she was prime minister. After GCHQ, he went to work for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The Secret History of the Arcade Trackball
by Tony @ The Arcade Blogger, 2016
Spoiler
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https://arcadeblogger.com/2016/07/29/th ... trackball/

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The trackball as a method of user interface control has been around for some time. In terms of public consciousness, I would argue that arcade games pioneered their widespread use by getting them literally in the hands of a mainstream consumer audience. The best way to get someone using a new device, is to put one in their hands – as daft as that sounds, it’s perfectly true.

Up until the late 70s, trackballs had mainly military or industrial uses. A desktop mouse is essentially an upturned trackball, using what is fundamentally the same hardware – but although we take the humble PC mouse for granted now, we didn’t really see mass implementation and use of even those devices until what, the late to mid 90s?

Trackballs go way back to the very early days of arcade machines and beyond.
The Story of the Trackball, Canada's Earliest Gift to Computing
by Ernie Smith @ Tedium, 2017
Spoiler
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https://www.vice.com/en/article/mbp4qn/ ... -computing
https://shortformernie.medium.com/compu ... 5b41d4e8a8

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As far as input devices go, the trackball is unheralded, nerdy, and niche—your cursor’s red-headed stepchild. But it set the stage for more popular cursor-control mechanisms. It’s also older than you might expect. The trackball is older than the mouse, and we can thank the Canadian military for it

So, as it turns out, before the virtual bowling alley borrowed something from the trackball, the inventors of the trackball borrowed something from the actual bowling alley—specifically, the Canadian variation of it, called 5-pin bowling.
A Brief History of the Personal Computer Trackball
TrackballWorld, 2018
Spoiler
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https://web.archive.org/web/20180320192 ... story.aspx

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Popular PC writings have it that a trackball is nothing more than "an upside down" mouse. This is, however, quite inaccurate revisionist history and, if anything, a mouse is an upside down trackball since development of the trackball pre-dates early development of the mouse by about 11 years. The history of both pointing devices intertwines with the development of the modern graphical user interfaces (GUI) now standard on virtually all computers.

Today's trackballs evolved to the true 'state of the art' gadgets, incorporating quite advanced technology.

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To summarize - there's no particular person or company acknowledged as an "official inventor" of trackball, but such names as Ralph Benjamin, Tom Cranston, Fred Longstaff, William Alexander, Bent Stumpe definitely could be credited as its creators, as well as Royal Navy Scientific Service, Ferranti Ltd., Hughes Aircraft Co. and CERN they've worked for.

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