Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?

Trackball 50 Years Old 120

GRW writes "Rachel Ross in a Toronto Star story called The mouse that soared, writes "Fifty years ago, a team of engineers in Toronto turned a simple bowling ball into one of the most influential gadgets of our time. The trackball they created would grow into a mouse." "Tom Cranston and a colleague, Fred Longstaff, thought up the trackball idea while working on a Lake Ontario military project called the Digital Automated Tracking and Resolving System (DATAR)."" I played a bowling game in Boston once that used a bowling ball sized trackball to run a ball through a bizarre 3D bowling lane. I thought a regular trackball messed with my wrists ;)
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Trackball 50 Years Old

Comments Filter:
  • Imagine... (Score:4, Funny)

    by SerialHistorian ( 565638 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:18PM (#3183703)
    It would be cool if they still made trackballs with 16-lbs bowling balls... a couple of my cow-workers are perfectly lined up right now...
    • > a couple of my cow-workers are perfectly lined up right now

      Things might be a little tricky if your co-workers are COWS... You'd have to try to take their legs out or something. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?
    • The main control for it is a trackball that you really have to crank to get power into your golf swing. its a bit larger than a baseball... It controls slice and everything on the back swing. Addictive bar game. I mention it since the bowling video game was mentioned.
    • a couple of my cow-workers are perfectly

      Would that be a Freudian slip...or just too much caffffffene....
      • by hawk ( 1151 )
        are just going to milk this for all it's worth, aren't you?

        hawk, who wouldn't dairy to act in such a manner

        • That was an udder disgrace!
          I've made better puns off-the-hoof,
          Oh so long as you tried your dairy best, I suppose that's the best I can expect.
          Even if the pun wasn't Moo-sic to my ears.

          I'm really glad I'm not to much of a cow-ard to let you see my terrible puns :)
    • Great slip there but if you don't want to be singled out as an in_duh_vidual you should spell it "cow-orkers". And if you won't take my word for it just ask any DNRS (Dogbert's New Ruling Class) member.

    • I remember them from the navy. I actually prefer them for many uses. The typical track balls you buy retail feel like bowling with a golf ball.

      A mouse is better for text editing, etc.

      To get the idea, thing of something in the tabletop about the size of a mouse pad. At the top of the mouse pad are your buttons, right under your fingertips. The track ball sits under you hand in the cup of the palm. The curvature of the ball matches your palm nicely, basically a bowling ball on rollers. You spin it, and it has great momentum. good stuff.

  • Ahhhh, Centipede (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Brento ( 26177 )
    Reminds me of my favorite arcade game. Trackballs were really the only game controllers that you could seriously bang on, vent your frustration with, and not feel like you were damaging the controller or yourself. You could spin that bad boy like nobody's business. Joysticks fought back, but trackballs went with the flow.
  • by Screaming Lunatic ( 526975 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:19PM (#3183708) Homepage
    The carpal-tunnel in my wrist thanks you.
  • by Zen Mastuh ( 456254 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:20PM (#3183712)
    = 50 years worth of hand cheese.

    I hope someone cleans that thing up soon.

    • Exactly! Did anyone else read the title of this article and think "Ewww!!! 50 year old trackball??!? I hope he's cleaned it recently"
  • I think that all trackball mice are the best and everyone should be using them. They are more comfortable and are less stress on the hands, so remember trackball's are the way to go.
  • The trackball (Score:2, Interesting)

    IMHO, still the best input device going... Especially, now that they have been upgraded to optical. Plus, you can play Crystal Castles the way it was meant to be played...
    • Going to an optical trackball over a mouse has made my life 10 times better.

      I wanted to stay corded so I didn't have to mess with extra software or compatability issues. RF, IR and who knows what control wireless mice [small chinese men with semaphore flags].

      I went with Microsoft {{{ouch}}} Optical Trackball. The black one and not the expensive of the two.

      Being able to use extension cords keeps me close to home base and lets me put the thing on my leg, head, cock, etc.

      Of course if it's porn or quake... the mouse doesn't end up on the floor when I'm excited. A few times I've had to chase the 'ball' down when I'm stoned and drop the damn thing.

      The whole reason I went to it was because my personal computer didn't sit on a desk but on a microwave stand and I sat on the couch. Mobile Mouse Pad.
  • by INMCM ( 209310 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:26PM (#3183745) Homepage
    As much as I loath trackballs, I must say that this is refreshing. After all the shouting matchings and near fists fights over the supremacy of the trackball over the mouse and vice versa, this is the sorta thing that makes me think world peace is possible. I think I'll show this to those trackball heathens I call friends and we can all enjoy a good cry and sing "Why Can't We be Friends?".
  • [...] turned a simple bowling ball into one of the most influential gadgets of our time [...] The British and American navies seemed impressed, but not enough to buy into the project.

    Can you blame them? How can you roll the darn thing?
    Although having a cord attached to your boling-ball can have certain advantages. :)

  • I adore my Logitech trackman FX. I've had it for years, Takes next to no desk space, and I don't have to pick it up when I need to turn farther in quake III, just wing the ball and let inertia do the rest while I pound the fire button... DeathSpirl!!! Mwhahahahahahaha :)
    • Amen to that.

      People playng FPS with mouses don't know how much they suck until they learn and use a trackball.

      I know that by experience. Nothing beats the SideWinder FFPro on the right and the Trackman Marble on the left ;-)

      The damn thing is that you get dependent on that shit. When I had to play tribes, with its funky controls (all keyboard based - no joystick). God, how I sucked...
  • by jimmcq ( 88033 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:29PM (#3183760) Journal
    The "bizzare bowling game in Boston" was HyperBowl [hyperbowl.com]. That was the $30,000 version [hyperbowl.com], but there is also a home version [hyperbowl.com] for only $20 (bowling-ball-sized-trackball not included).
  • Wow, when I read the article headline, I thought the post was talking about the Trackball game. You know, the one with the plastic scoop things where you throw the ball to each other. I think there was a yellow ball and a white ball. Anyone else remember that? You could put mad spin on the ball and unsuspecting people in the head with it.

    What an incredible game... I wonder when the 50th anniversary of that game will be.

  • I remember the stories of Pentagon staffers getting RSI from Missile Command machines in arcades near the building.
  • Laptops... (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by Rob.Mathers ( 527086 )
    Thought your 5 year old laptop (you know, the kind that used to have a good trackball in it, not that eraserhead or touchpad crap) was heavy? Try it with a bowling ball instead of a 5 cm sphere!
    • I prefer the touchpad to a trackball. I find it much more responsive, and resistant to gunk. Of course, a touchpad is virtually impossible for FPSs, but that's what my USB ports are for.
  • Canadian Psyche (Score:2, Interesting)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 )
    What is much more interesting about this article than the blow by blow history of the track ball is how much it says about the Canadian psyche.

    They have a real complex about trying to be as good as their neighbor to the south. I've heard a few Canadians that live in the U.S. complain about it and well, this article really shows it.

    "The British and American navies seemed impressed, but not enough to buy into the project. So it was shelved."

    And better yet,

    "It was a truly Canadian choice. Had they been building the device in the United States, bowling balls wouldn't have been an option"

    There are a lot of nice things about Canada and I've never understood this obsession w/trying to keep up w/the U.S.

    It made this article a lot more interesting though.

    • I may get whacked for saying this, being a Canadian myself... but here is my observation:

      A result of most Americans not knowing very much about us, and usually ignoring anything about us, other than cheap shopping and vacations causes a 'Starved for Attention' attitude.

      I don't think it's a real bad thing, it causes Patriotism to increase, and some healthy competition to result.
    • Not trying to be as good as the US... to make the fact realised that both countries are on relitively even ground.
    • There are a lot of nice things about Canada and I've never understood this obsession w/trying to keep up w/the U.S.

      Indeed. And maybe one of these years you'll win the hockey olympic gold medal. Sorry we had to beat you again.

    • For those who are interested in reading a similar story of Canadian innovation that was stifled by its own government on similar grounds, you should read about the Avro Arrow [maverick2.com], an idea ahead of its time.

      Most Canadians should know the story, but it's still interesting nonetheless.

      epenguin.org - Believe It! [epenguin.org]
  • I love trackballs, haven't found a good one thats USB compatible. Any suggestions? Preferably Mac. I have always liked trackballs, they feel so much more real.
    • Hello,

      Have you tried Microsoft's Trackball Explorer or Trackball Optical? Each has a USB interface and works with Macs.

      The home page for Microsoft's mouse products is http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/mouse/ [microsoft.com].


      Aryeh Goretsky
      • And if you're going USB, why not look into a universal USB HID driver [usboverdrive.com] for your Mac so that it doesn't matter what the thing says on the box, as long as it says "USB".

        However, I'll take Logitech over Microsoft any day. I still haven't forgiven them for AmigaBASIC. And Kensington still uses mechanical pickups.

    • How about this, [kensington.com] or this [kensington.com], or perhaps, this [kensington.com], or what about this one [kensington.com], or even this old thing. [kensington.com]

      • I agree. I love my Kensington Turbo Mouse(s) I bought my first when when i got my performa 6220 and it still works to this day. They of course now have usb versions available, one of which is attached to my G4 tower. The software for them is also excellent, altho the OSX version is lacking in features still compared to its OS9 counterpart. They may seem a bit pricey for a pointing device, but it should last you a long time. My original one has lasted for 4 or 5 years now.
  • by crucini ( 98210 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:41PM (#3183822)
    At one time my manager was an old mechanical engineer named Roy. Roy had been a fighter pilot, then an engineer at several defense contractors. Roy's account of the creation of the trackball is similar to this story, but he did not mention Canada. I always assumed it took place in the US.

    Anyway, Roy told me that an electrical engineer came up with the idea. The problem was to find an input device that would enable an operator to rapidly point at a blip on the radar screen and 'aquire' it as a target. The EE implementation of the idea did not work very well, however, because if the operator shoved the ball in the direction of the target, the cursor would follow an elliptical or parabolic path (can't remember which). Roy invented the mechanical ball suspension that enables the ball to spin in a straight line. This enabled a very fast and ergonomic mode of operation - the operator would push the ball towards the target with a force proportional to the distance, then 'catch' the ball with the outstretched fingers to decelerate it onto the target.

    Apparently, the tendency of the trackball to follow a curved path is a variant of a problem well known to mechanical engineers. Therefore Roy's invention was simply the application of a well known mechanical engineering technique. Maybe the people cited in this article are the EE's who originated the idea.
  • Has anyone seen any new laptop computers with track balls? I remember having an old ATT brand laptop (there was such a thing) with one. It was terrible. It would always get dirt in it and the ball would seem to skip at times. New laptop pointing devices are better, but I still think they need improvement. I think touch screens are probably the best solution.

    What do people here prefer? Track point (eraser thingy in keyboard) or touch pads on laptops?
    • The last trackball I saw was also in an old AT&T laptop that someone gave to my brother as a sort of toy.

      Personally, I love my trackpad. It took me a good two weeks to get used to it, but now it is my input device of choice, and at least seems to me like it gives me the fastest cursor that is also precise, unlike the nipple things that always send your cursor off two inches in the wrong direction. And I have used those for long stretches as well.

      But then, I have an iBook, which means that I move with my right index finger and click with my right thumb, which is always right where it needs to be, because it's all one mouse button. Flame away about how you, personally, would go into catatonic shock if you were deprived of the other 2-3 buttons on your mouse, but it is just dandy for me.

      • Actually, they're better now (or maybe I'm less bitter) than they were a few years ago, but I find I always end up hitting the pad with thumb, and especially when using a WM with windows set to focus on rollover, this gets pretty annoying.

        However, when I was in a large computer store last week (Fry's in Austin), I ran into a guy looking at laptops at the same time I was -- an ex computer repairman. We talked about why so few laptops come with the (IMO vastly, incomprehensibly better) trackpoint / erasor / nipple thing, and he said that it's because a) they fail a lot (something I can vouch for too) and b) to replace them means replacing the whole keyboard subassembly, rather than just the pointer device, as with a trackpad.

        Now that trackballs are optical, I hope some brave company at least makes one optional. I rather liked it on my Powerbook 140.


  • by scampbell ( 201429 ) on Monday March 18, 2002 @07:42PM (#3183830)
    In John Vardalas' book "The Computer Revolution in Canada" (MIT Press, 2001) we learn about DATAR, an attempt by the Canadian Navy to find and exploit a high-tech niche to trade to the British and US navies for prestige and other technologies. After their success hunting U-boats and protecting conveys across the Atlantic in WWII, DATAR was concieved to be a real-time decentralized system to track targets and transmit information between allied ships. It was much more advanced than the centralized UK proposal, but they had a hard time selling it to either the UK/US. Eventually, the US decided to build their own, with a crash-program and millions on dollars that the Canadians couldn't keep up with.

    But it wasn't just a mouse that came out of it:

    Eventually, the real-time experience from DATAR begat the worlds first electronic digital postal sorting computer (a prototype built for Canada Post years before anything similar); the first check sorting computer for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York; the first real-time airline reservation system (beating SABRE by a few months with a much simpler, cheaper, and faster system); and the Ferranti FP6000 (eventually the British ICT1900 series).

    It's a great story and a great book. Not much has been written about the history of computing in Canada, but Vardalas is the best here.

  • Engelbart's early word processor had some features that haven't yet caught on. Using the NLS system, a simple text file could be presented in many different ways. The user could move quickly through a long document by viewing just the first sentence of each paragraph, or the first word of every sentence.

    Now this is the sort of creative thinking Linux aps need to sink the MSS Office. To think these ideas are decades old.

    The Gardener

  • I love my trackball! Got it at staples, the biggest trackball that anyone makes anymore. And anyways, the mouse is significantly worse for your wrists. Almost correspondes with my DVORAK useage.
  • The game is called hyperbowl (http://www.hyperbowl.com) and the only place you can play that in Boston is at Jillians (http://www.jilliansboston.com/). Jillians is huge! The cocktail waitresses are so freakin hot, the BU-UMASS-Northeastern-Harvard-MIT chicks are so freaky freakin hot. And after you break the ice with a video game, you take the party upstairs play some pool, get hammered, and then go down to the basement and dance at Atlas.

    I work right across the street at the public art high school and don't get me started on young hotties, cause I could go on all day.

  • Quoth the article: The mouse Engelbart used in that important demonstration differed somewhat from today's designs. Most notably, it had three, equal-sized buttons on top.

    I dunno what kind of mice they have in Canada today, but all of my mice have three buttons, with the exception of the Microsoft mouse which I use as a backup for my laptop. My first serial mouse had 3 buttons, as did other old mice I've come across.

  • In 1968, Engelbart demonstrated the mouse with the rest of the NLS system to a group of computer scientists and engineers. It was a landmark in computer history for a number of reasons, outside of the mouse. Designed as a machine that assisted the user throughout the working day, NLS was the first system that linked ideas together in "hyperlinks," much like the Internet we enjoy today.

    Ermmm.... who is it that's tried to patent hyperlinks?

    I think this is evidence of "prior art."

    • Talking about patents:
      "It fell off the desk,'' he said. "They didn't do anything with it."
      The company didn't even patent the concept because of the secrecy surrounding the project.

      So the trackball -- ingenious as it was -- was left to languish in relative obscurity with the rest of the DATAR system, while researchers around the world grappled with the problem of making a graphical user interface of their own.

      So it was forgotten (for several years)because it wasn't patented? Others had to (re-)invent lesser alternatives because it wasn't patented?
  • I played a bowling game in Boston once that used a bowling ball sized trackball to run a ball through a bizarre 3D bowling lane.

    The Metreon [metreon.com] in San Francisco has an Arcade hall that has this game. You basically control how a bowling ball rolls through the streets of San Francisco, trying to miss cable-cars etc.
    • The Windows XP Plus pack comes with a shareware version of this game.. There's no comparison to the original at the Metreon, especially if you're just using a mouse... If I had a trackball, it might be closer.
  • The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over fifty-five hundred years old. This previous invention is regarded as having greatly influenced the inventors of the trackball made 50 years ago.

    PPA, the girl next door.
  • It is much easier to play fps games with an optical mouse.
  • The track ball 50 years old and the times are changing with the intoduction of Optical technology. The better responce and not having to clean make this kind of mouse the best friend of a lazy man (less movment of the hand and no cleaning). Not saying I am not a fan of track ball. I like to make things harder by playing UT, with a 2 button mouse, online and still doing rather well. --FS
  • Trackballs and Radar (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hfk ( 539863 )
    Long before I'd ever heard of a mouse I was familar with trackballs. I'm a radar maintainer and, as the article mentions, trackballs were, and are, used in radar applications. However, in the radar world, the mouse is slowly achieving ascendancy over the trackball. Old habits die hard, though, and many trackballs are still hanging round (because they're attached to older radar systems that were desinged for use with the trackball). Newer systems are designed for mouse use, but a part of that is coincidental: newer systems are also based on Sun workstations and Solaris, and use the peripherals supplied with Sparcs/Ultras.

    I hope to submit a piece to /. eventually, detailing the rise of Unix in the Radar environment (at least in my corner of the radar environment, Air Traffic Control). Many geeks here might be surprised to learn that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration, the US agency that is responsible for our nation's Air Traffic infrastructure, for you international readers) has a variety of equipment based on Sun Hardware. Although such systems are in the minority, the trend for newer systems is definitely towards Unix. Furthermore, in anticipation of a large influx of Unix-based equipment, many (most?) FAA technicians are required to complete both a 3 week resident Unix course (using Redhat 7.x on a PC) and a 3 week resident networking course, covering TCP/IP, Ethernet, etc.

    Of course, the initial reaction by many of you might be "OMG, only 3 weeks each? What can they possibly learn?" I won't go into too much detail (save that for the piece) but they learn enough to be Operators/Maintenares, and to follow plainly written procedures with some idea of what's going on behind the scenes. In most cases, Sparc/Ultra failure will prompt replacement, and the new box will have the OE, neccesary Patches, and Application software preloaded: only site customization will have to be installed, and I expect that that will be done by scripting (to make it as simple and fool-proof as possible for the Maintainer). Much more to write, but that will have to wait.

    BTW, getting back to trackballs: never have liked the damn things, glad to see the mouse is finally coming on strong.
  • with trackballs was back in the '60s. They were used on the consoles of the SAGE/BUIC systems which the US and Canadian military manned. These were computer systems hooked up to the DEW (Distant Early Warning) radars in N. Canada and Alaska installed to detect bombers coming into North America. SAGE was the Strategic Air/Ground Environment system which was later augmented by BUIC, the Back Up Intercepter Control system.

    The track ball was somewhat smaller than a bowling ball. More like a baseball in size and was used to select blips on radar screens.

  • 1) Marble Madness
    2) Crystal Castles
    3) Missile Command
    4) That black & white Atari Football game

    I have an ADB and a USB Kensington Orbit. If only I could figure out how to get MacMAME to use them properly in these games. (I'd also like to get proper analog control working in Spy Hunter and Arkanoid.)

  • got started in the IT industry ('78) - an old-fashioned teletype machine (or what was then called a SPO) was the only "user" - read BOFH access (yes, I was an operator:-))

    It would probably have taken more memory than the machine (Burroughs B3700) had to cope with the trackball.

    Makes you wonder...

  • One criticism I have of the trackballs I've used over the years is this: I'd really like a LARGE ball to use for more precise movement. It would have to be fairly lightweight, though. A bowling-ball-sized sphere is what I'd like, but certainly not one weighing several kilos.

    A trackball that large would probably necessitate a pretty robust wrist/upper arm rest, too. It's hard to imagine some ergonomic hand-only platform like a Logitech combined with a really big sphere.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"