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He had devised the palm-sized, wheel-based instrument in 1963 as a way to move a computer-screen cursor by means other than arrows on a keyboard. Other alternatives being weighed at the time were a light-pen pointed at the screen, a tracking ball and a joystick.
"I remember how my head went back to a device called a planimeter," another wheel-based device used by engineers to measure irregular geometric areas, he recalled in a 1987 oral-history interview with Stanford University Libraries.
His colleague William English, SRI's chief engineer, led the tinkering and testing of the cursor controller, which was carved from wood and used two perpendicular wheels rather than the roller ball included in subsequent incarnations. English built the first prototype in 1964.