Defeating Mouse Lint

The rise of the optical mouse, a device so good at its job that it effectively killed off the rubber ball, and the sometimes questionable people who invented it.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Here’s something that you, as a computer user, likely have not had to do in a long time: Open up the mouse, and clean out the grime that had built up on the rollers over the last couple of months, revealing that no, your desk is not as clean as you believe it to be. No, it’s not because your desk got cleaner. Rather, it’s because we figured out that optical mice were significantly better designs, because they could work in many more settings, in fact, without even requiring a mouse pad. So, what was the aha moment where the ball mouse lost out to the optical one? And how did it happen? Today’s Tedium ponders a mouse-design murder. — Ernie @ Tedium


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“Is there a purely optical mouse available—one that doesn’t rely on the usual fickle mechanical interface? My wife is playing games on my work computer and beating the living daylights out of the [mice], and they’re dying all the time.”

— A reader question submitted to InfoWorld in 1994, reflecting the fact that mice had a reputation for being sensitive devices that would gradually break down. (I’m imagining the wife guy frustrated about his wife’s sudden interest in Doom.) For what it’s worth, columnist Brett Glass noted that optical mice were considered more difficult to use, “but in your case, this might cause your wife to use the mouse less vigorously.”

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When it comes to mice, the fewer moving parts, the better. (Dan Foy/Flickr)

The mechanical mouse’s frustrating side effect that affected its long-term fortunes

Like the dial-up modem, the mechanical mouse is an excellent example of a device so utterly defeated by the technology that supplanted it that it basically disappeared from the market.

The defeat was so complete that three years ago, a user in the Reddit group r/Trackballs asked for help finding a “BOTTOM trackball.” which led to a lot of snickers in the comments.

The trackball was first, and it turns out, as ball-based input devices go, the trackball won.

Laugh as much as you want about that, but I dare you to search on Amazon for a new mechanical mouse with a built-in ball. You will struggle to find one that isn’t a trackball. "Ball mouse" brings up dozens of examples of trackballs, while “mechanical mouse” brings up mice with mechanical switches (you know, like the keyboards). In fact, the only thing that I might even describe as being in a similar category to a traditional ball mouse sold on Amazon today is a device called the Contour Design Roller Mouse Pro, which essentially uses a giant roller that can be controlled by hand.


This weird-looking mouse, called the Contour Design Roller Mouse Pro, is an excellent deconstruction of what mechanical mice actually do—move around rollers.

Ball mice, if you’re not familiar, used rollers in a way not dissimilar to this unusual beast of navigation. The average one used three, and in their day, they were fairly inexpensive. Most of the major mice you would get from computer manufacturers, including Apple and Commodore, were ball-based mice until the early 2000s, in which a sea change happened.

We’ll get to what caused the sea change in a second. But let’s talk about how we got to that point.

Five things you probably didn’t know about mice, optical or not

  1. That gray rubber ball in early mice? It’s actually a metal weight covered in rubber, as has been shown by YouTubers in the past.
  2. Optical mice don’t love glass desks. The way modern optical mice work relies on tracking the surface of the desk or other setting you’re using through a series of surface scans of your setting, which is significantly more complicated when the surface you’re using is made of clear glass. As the Mouse Guide notes, your best bet, other than learning to love a trackpad or trackball, is to use a laser mouse, which has a higher level of sensitivity and can work around the failings of glass.
  3. Apple avoided multi-button mice for more than 20 years. You think that long wait to get a trackpad on the iPad was bad? Try being a Mac user during the ’90s, when the company refused to make mice with more than a single button. This only changed in 2005, when the company released the Mighty Mouse, which included a miniature trackball and an array of non-physical buttons. (And yes, the mini-trackball is susceptible to the very issues with dirt that ball mice struggle with.)
  4. The Mario Paint mouse wasn’t the only console mouse; far from it. While the Super Nintendo game easily sports the most famous example of a mouse-based controller for a video game console, collectors have found numerous other examples. One Reddit user shared 11 distinct examples last fall, some of which are quite obscure, and many of which didn’t hit the North American market. Nearly all of these mice are of the ball mouse variety, by the way.
  5. They used to combine mice with landline telephones. I wrote a whole piece about it three and a half years ago. The Tele-Mouse remains epic.

Xerox Mouse

It’s wild that Xerox was already making optical mice years before MacOS or Windows were even a glimmer. (via Dick Lyon’s personal website)

Xerox had the optical mouse ready to go before you ever tried a ball mouse

As you may know, Xerox initially shaped the graphical user interface, but was unprepared to exploit those innovations themselves. One of those innovations was the optical mouse, which one of its engineers, Richard F. Lyon, developed in the early 1980s.

Lyon, thankfully for us, has left some impressive notes about what he built and how it improved the mousing experience. It was actually Xerox’s second innovation on the mouse front. Originally, the mouse used a pair of wheels to navigate X and Y motion in a herky-jerky fashion, but gradually shifted to ball bearings.

In his article about the mouse, he noted that even with this added mechanism, the ball-bearing approach to mousing left something to be desired.

In Xerox research, the mouse has been in popular use for over eight years, and has been found to be preferable to other pointing devices. However, it has not been outstandingly reliable; the balls or wheels can get dirty and slip on the pad, rather than rolling, or the commutators can get dirty and skip. This is likely to be a significant problem in maintaining workstations that use the mouse in an uncontrolled environment.

In other words, your early frustrations with mousing were well known at the start of the ’80s, when Lyon was attempting to improve the design.

The weaknesses of the wheel mouse and the ball-bearing mouse had a single root cause: They are mechanical devices, and mechanical devices are bound to break down. That makes them more expensive to produce, harder to repair, and more likely to run into damage that prevents you from using the machine.

You know something that is less likely to randomly break, however? The light emitting diode, arguably the most important innovation of the 1970s, with companies like RCA, General Electric, Fairchild, and Texas Instruments producing them by the truckload. That meant there was a financial incentive to figure out a way to build a mouse that could be controlled optically.

As Lyon put it: “Another disadvantage of the electro-mechanical mouse is that it's expensive; the one-chip optical mouse is cheap.”

The price of a weighted rubber ball and rollers could not compete with a cheap piece of silicon and a light source.

There was one problem. It required a dedicated mouse pad, not unlike the mouse pad ball mice use, except it was highly detailed and intended to be used by the mouse to help keep its position in mind. The optical mouse was not built to track the cursor’s movement on any surface, something ball mice could technically do (not that you would want to). It wasn’t particularly attractive, but it was cheap, with Lyon noting “it can be printed for about a penny on an ordinary ink press.”

Xerox Mouse

Got $2,750 lying around? Good news. You can buy this mouse on eBay.

Ultimately, then, when the Xerox Star hit the market at the insanely high price of $16,000 and obviously failed to set the world ablaze, the optical mouse—which as Lyon noted, was cheaper to manufacture and held the benefit of not requiring constant cleaning—fell by the wayside.

Someone else would carry its baton to the general consumer market—and that person, oddly enough, developed his variant around the time as Lyon. He didn’t have the backing of Xerox.

Sun Optical Mouse

A Sun Microsystems-branded mouse developed by Mouse Systems. The mouse pad is load bearing. (Wikimedia Commons)

The IBM PC had an optical mouse before it had a ball mouse—and a guy with a controversial latter-day reputation designed it

The Lisa, probably the first example of a personal computer with a mouse, used a ball-based variant. No surprise there. So did the Mac. But what if I told you that the first mouse for the IBM PC, released in 1983, was an optical mouse? It’s true.

And we can thank Steve Kirsch for that. Kirsch played a key role in two parts of computing history: He developed the first commercialized optical mouse; and then, with Infoseek a decade later, one of the first commercial search engines for the internet, as well as the first to introduce the CPM-based advertising model. It was notably one of the first search engines to strike a deal to be featured in Netscape Navigator.

And that wasn’t all. He criss-crossed many firsts in the history of computing, as noted in his oral history with the Computer History Museum from 2016.

“I wrote the email system for the guy who invented email,” Kirsch said at one point.

(For the sake of noting, you may be familiar with the name “Steve Kirsch” despite not knowing anything about his history with computers. Yes, it is the same guy as the prominent anti-vaxxer. More on that later. But let’s explain what he did first.)

Since we’re talking about mice, let’s emphasize Kirsch’s work with Mouse Systems. As recalled in Brett Kingstone’s 1987 book The Dynamos, the MIT student found inspiration in the weak point of the amazing high-end computers at his disposal:

It all started when Kirsch was a student at MIT. “I was sitting in a room with three very expensive computers. All of them were using mechanical mice, and all the mice were dead. I thought it was pretty sad—here you had three $100,000 machines that were crippled because the mechanical mice were broken. It was like having a Ferrari with only three wheels on it. I thought there had to be a better way.” Kirsch devised a better way and proceeded to develop it. The result was an optical, rather than mechanical, mouse. There are no moving parts in Kirsch’s mouse, so, unlike mechanical mice, it lasts long and is free of breakage and maintenance problems. It works by counting the number of lines it moves across on a two-color grid aluminum mouse pad.

(One key thing that likely stands out: Like the Xerox mouse, the mouse pad was an essential element of the package.)

At first, he licensed his technology to a firm named Summagraphics, which failed to market the technology. He then developed the technology himself using his own firm, Mouse Systems, with a small budget, and initially, a makeshift factory based out of his apartment. It had all the markings of a guy with a good idea who didn’t know how to run a business.

“When I first got started at my apartment, there was a woman vendor who refused to come see us. She said she was afraid to, especially since we were then calling the company Rodent Associates,” he recalled to Kingstone.

But gradually, he figured it out, first by changing the name to Mouse Systems. The resulting device he developed briefly predated the mouse on the original Mac. And in a 1983 review for InfoWorld, famed tech journalist John Markoff, best known for his long run at The New York Times, gave the PC-Mouse a strong review, describing the experience as such:

The PC-Mouse’s sleek, black case slopes gently forward to permit your hand to curl easily over it. You operate the three buttons atop the case either with a single finger or with separate fingers, as you prefer. A thin cable extends from the mouse and connects it to an adapter box with a standard RJ11 modular phone plug. The adapter box in turn is connected to a power source and to the IBM Personal Computer through a standard RS-232 interface.

(The interesting thing about Markoff’s piece is that the mouse was so new that he effectively introduced it to his audience.)

One thing that helped the mouse take off was the decision to include software dedicated to its use case. (Case in point: Mouse Systems acquired the makers of PCPaint at a time when painting using an IBM PC was brand new.) Its decision to offer a memory-resistant program that grafted a pop-up menu onto existing text-based apps, like Lotus 1-2-3, added significant functionality to a tool that might have otherwise been seen as a novelty.

One notable example? The company developed one of the first versions of Klondike Solitaire for the IBM PC, which looks like this:

Like Microsoft a few years later, it realized that the secret to getting people to use the mouse would be by offering a great selection of games. So, that’s what they did.

But the differences between optical mice of the 1980s and the 2000s definitely showed. Lazy Game Reviews got a hold of one a dozen freaking years ago, and was weirded out by the fact that the mouse would only work with the mouse pad, but only if the mouse pad was pointed in a specific direction.

Ultimately, Mouse Systems was successful and profitable. But it did not reach the scale that the clearly worse ball-based mouse did, likely because of the quirks of having to use a dedicated mouse pad. But another company would step in and eventually make the optical mouse good enough for anyone.


The number of buttons included on the OpenOffice Mouse, perhaps the most egregious example of a mouse ever created. The device, developed by latter-day political activist Vox Day, was widely mocked upon its release, for understandable reasons. The device includes an Xbox-style joystick, macro support, multiple modes for each button, and half a meg of flash memory to store all your terrible settings. The mouse was so controversial that distanced itself from the project almost immediately after the announcement. (This was not helped by the fact that Day apparently marketed the device without the project’s permission.) After you’re done, you’ll want to use a single-button Apple mouse, just to clean your palate.

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Arguably the most important mouse ever made. (nez/Flickr)

The company that would fix the mouse and save millions of people from a life of roller-cleaning

So, we know ball mice were frustrating to maintain. But when it came to optical mice, did the mouse pads have to be so fundamental to their function?

For years, the answer to that question was, unfortunately, yes. But in the fall of 1999, a new mouse emerged on the market with the backing of a major player in input devices: Microsoft.

During the 1990s, as the company crushed its competition, it had developed a parallel reputation of designing keyboards, mice, and controllers that were significantly better than they had any right to be. The Microsoft Sidewinder controllers, for example, were surprisingly good, even if Microsoft forgot most of the lessons from that device when it developed the original Xbox controllers. As someone who grew up with a Natural Keyboard, I have strong memories of that weird, bulgy keyboard.

And the mice were no exception. Microsoft added a curve to the mouse to better contour the device to your hand, and infused numerous innovations into the mouse throughout the 1990s through its IntelliMouse line. The introduction of the scroll wheel was particularly inspired. And because Microsoft controlled the software stack, it basically meant the scroll wheel was properly supported right away.

But the real game-changer came in 1999, when it introduced the IntelliMouse Explorer, which was both the first USB mouse Microsoft made and the first optical mouse produced using a new groundbreaking technology developed by recent Hewlett Packard spinoff Agilent Technologies, which was essentially the company’s R&D arm.

Agilent, still around today, presents itself as a diagnostic testing design firm focused on medical devices. But it made a lot of money off of optical mice sensors. And fittingly, too, as HP was deeply involved in the R&D process that led to the modern LED way back in the 1960s. Essentially, we got a better optical mouse because the research arm that developed a commercially viable LED, decades later, decided to take a deeper look at the issue and come up with some solutions to managing it that could theoretically get rid of the need for an additional surface.

The company’s employees came up with numerous patents during the era that together solved the problem. The most important of which, “Method and device for tracking relative movement by correlating signals from an array of photoelements,” described its goal as such:

While the Ertel et al. cross-correlation process operates well for its intended purpose, its application to determining movement within a two-dimensional scheme requires sequential maximization of two or three cross-correlation functions, each having two or three variables with respect to which maximization is performed. The patent itself notes that the computational complexity of the two-dimensional extension is daunting, compared to the computational complexity of the one-dimensional approach.

What is needed is a method and device for tracking relative movement of the device relative to a region of interest, while accommodating curvilinear relative movement without a high degree of computational complexity.

Essentially, the optical mouse, if it was going to get rid of the specialized mouse pad, not only had to figure out where it was in context to the screen, but also in context to itself.

Logitech Scanman

Hand-held scanners. Remember those? (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve ever used a hand-held scanner like a Logitech Scanman, the type popular before flatbed scanners became widespread, the concept is actually somewhat similar. You move your hand to scan the photo or document on your desk, and it pulls in whatever is under your cursor, stitching together that information into an image on the screen. If you randomly lift the scanner halfway through the process and put it somewhere else on the page, the result looks jumbled.

The difference is that optical mice use that data to purely understand its position in the context of the cursor on the screen, meaning that, because accuracy in scanning isn’t the goal, it can scan the surface of your desk much faster. Optical mice users frequently “lift the scanner halfway through the process.” By solving for that—making it so that the mouse could reset its context on a dime—they suddenly had a mouse that could be used anywhere on your desk while still knowing where it was on the screen.

The IntelliMouse, the fruit of this research, was groundbreaking, and within just a few years, every major manufacturer had licensed the tech from Agilent.

It has shaped the numerous mice that have come in the years since—while leaving the ball mouse in the dust.

So, there’s something I have to talk about with this piece. It is a weird, uncomfortable topic, something I hinted at earlier, and it has to deal with one of the biggest political hot potatoes the 21st century has ever seen.

It has to do with Steve Kirsch, the man who first commercialized the optical mouse. He developed a device literally everyone benefits from, a technology many people use daily (not me, I use a Wacom tablet for my trackpad).

But he has spent years reshaping his modern reputation into one of the most prominent anti-vaccine individuals. Weirdly, at the beginning of the pandemic, he was actually funding efforts to find drugs that could fight COVID, only to fall off the deep end of misinformation peddling when those tests didn’t work out, leaning heavily on tests he initially funded around drugs such as fluvoxamine and ivermectin.

With vaccines proving more viable than initially expected for treating COVID, he fell into a deep web of misinformation, as the MIT Technology Review noted back in 2021.

“Talking to Kirsch is an exhausting experience. He is frequently brash and interruptive, peppering dire warnings about vaccines with veiled aspersions toward Anthony Fauci and vague references to influential people who agree with him in private but cannot speak publicly,” the piece stated.

Two and a half years later, not much has changed, which is weird to think about, considering he launched a company that, had the cosmic dice rolled slightly differently, could have become Google. About a year ago, he drew negative attention for offering a woman $100,000 to take off her mask on a flight he was on, which the public deemed creepy.

Computer Mouse Ball Removed

Just as a reminder of what we’re supposed to be talking about in this section. (via PeakPx)

So, given all that, do we ignore the discomfort that this unpalatable mix of tech innovation and modern-day behavior creates?

Do we all get rid of our optical mice and start using trackpads instead? Or, perish the thought, bring back the ball mice, and deal with the periodic inconvenience of having to clean the devices?

Of course not. The patents at this point have long expired, and the technology needed more time in the oven before it went mainstream, anyway. But it is worth noting the weird ethical twists and turns our devices wend through, as we have to consider the people who created them.

Personally, I wish I was writing about Trip Hawkins again. That guy was at least interesting.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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