This Week in Engineering History: The Archives

November 15, 2007

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This Week in Engineering History: The Archives

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This Week in Engineering History: The First Mouse

This Week in Engineering History: The First Mouse

January 1964
The first mouse was the brainchild of Douglas Engelbart. His work on this new user-friendly way of interacting with a computer contributed to a number of now-common technologies, from Windows and teleconferencing to email and the Internet. The heart of mouse technology is the graphical user interface. Engelbart received a patent for his mouse-like device, which had a wooden shell and two wheels. By 1968, Engelbart had developed a plastic version of the mouse with three buttons. In 1972 Xerox took Engelbart's mouse and developed a graphical user interface for its Alto computer. In 1982, Mouse Systems released the first mouse for a PC. But the mouse didn't truly take off until Apple released its Lisa computer with a single-button mouse. Microsoft quickly followed by introducing a mouse for a PC that came with a card and software for $200. 

Lithium-ion battery

Lithium-ion battery

December 1997
While lithium-ion batteries were first proposed in the 1960s, they came into reality once Bell Labs developed a workable graphite anode to provide an alternative to lithium metal. Groundbreaking cathode research followed by an Oxford University team led by John Goodenough in 1991. Goodenough moved to the University of Texas, and in 1996 he discovered the electrochemical utility of the olivine material lithium iron phosphate. This development delivered the necessary safety that makes the batteries viable commercially. The advantage of the lithium ion batteries is the wide variety of shapes and sizes that allow them efficiently fill available space. They are also lighter and don’t suffer from the memory effect and high self-discharge of nickel-based batteries. The downside is their lifespan, which is dependent on aging from time of manufacturing.

This Week in Engineering History: First Engine Control Module

This Week in Engineering History: First Engine Control Module

December 1980 This month 28 years ago, Motorola introduced the first engine control module for Ford Motor Co. This early electronic control unit (ECU) was designed to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. The early Motorola ECU used by Ford was also the first major market for Motorola microprocessors. Modern ECUs contain hardware and software. They control a number of automotive engine functions, including variable valve timing, transmissions, traction control and turbocharger waste gates. Electronic engine control systems have moved beyond the auto industry. They are now standard in aeronautical applications, military equipment and smart farm machinery.


January 1968 The programmable logic controller was introduced by GM Hydramatic in January 1968. Before the PLC arrived, control, sequencing and safety interlock logic for manufacturing automobiles was guided by relays, timers and dedicated closed-loop controls. The process for updating these tools for the yearly model changes was time consuming and expensive. The relay systems had to be rewired by electricians. GM Hydramatic put out a request for proposal for an electronic replacement. Bedford Associates in MA won with bid with the 084 – the 84th project was successful. PLCs are now integral to most manufacturing. Leading PLC vendors now include Allen-Bradley, ABB, Honeywell, Siemens and GE.

December 1947
60 years ago, the modern electronics industry was born when the transistor was invented. In December 1947, three physicists at Bell Telephone Laboratories – John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain – unveiled the first transistor. The three men received the 1956 Physics Nobel Prize for their joint invention. The transistor became a viable alternative to the vacuum tube. Since transistors were small, highly reliable and generated little heat, they ushered in the miniaturization of complex circuitry which made computers possible, not to mention the 9-volt battery-operated portable radios with their leather cases that played Beatles music on beaches across the world.

November 1972 Pong, the first video game for the home market was introduced by Atari Inc. 35 years ago this month. Pong was based on ping pong. While Pong is often regarded as the world’s first video arcade game, Computer Space was developed by Nutting Associates a year earlier in 1971. The complicated Computer Space didn’t catch on, but Pong was widely adopted both in arcades and by home users. Pong was the game that launched the initial boom in the video game industry. Three months after its debut, Atari has sold 8,000 to 10,000 units to arcades. The first home consoles were released during Christmas of 1975 for $100. By the late 1970s, Pong’s popularlity was eclipsed by more the sophisticated games, Pac-Man and Space Invaders.

September 1976 The first videocassettes for the home market appeared in the fall of 1975. Later nicknamed Beta, these first cassettes were based on Sony’s U-matic technology that was developed for the professional market. The Betamax line of cassettes were alone in the market until JVC Americas Corp. came out with the competing VHS format in 1976, setting off a videotape format war. VHS finally won and remains the standard for home videotape. When videotapes were first released, Hollywood was petrified that video would eat into theater profits. In defense, movie studios priced feature films at $100 or more, making the videotapes affordable only to rental stores. In time, the studios discovered the tape market wouldn’t suppress movie tickets, so studios priced tapes at the consumer friendly $20 to $30 and found a major new revenue stream.

October 1981 During the fall of 1981, IBM introduced the IBM PC 5150. At the time, Apple and Tandy dominated the minicomputer market with a combined 39 percent share. The announcement in 1980 that IBM would soon produce a personal computer immediately put IBM in the lead. The first PCs ranged from $1,565 for a stripped-down system to $4,500 for a full business system with color graphics, two docks and a printer. Depending on the model, the machine could store 16,000 to 260,000 characters in memory. IBM projected sales of 240,000 units for the first five years. The PC hit that goal in the first couple months.

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