It's hard to say if the Macintosh would've been so successful if it hadn't had such a revolutionary interface—namely, the mouse. While Apple didn't invent the mouse, it did commission the now legendary engineer Jim Yurchenco to make it viable. And he looked to Steve Jobs' former employer for inspiration.
That company, of course, was Atari, and the inspiration was a relatively new device that Atari called the "Trak-Ball." The original mouse that Steve Jobs tinkered with during a visit to Xerox PARC in the early 1980s worked a bit like the Trak-Ball, but the whole set up was wildly expensive. Apple contracted the design firm Hovey-Kelley to bring the cost of a comparable device from Xerox's estimated cost of $400 a piece down to $25 a piece, and Yurchenco took the lead.
The problem with the Xerox design, Yurchenco quickly realized, was that it was just too complicated. The mouse forced a ball down onto the table and used a series of switches to track the movement of the ball which would send a signal to the graphic user interface to move a cursor around on the screen. While looking at other input devices, Yurchenco settled on the Atari Trak-Ball as a terrific alternative.
As the name implied, the Trak-Ball also tracked the movement of a ball and rendered that movement on the screen of arcade games. Rather than force the ball onto the table, however, he design simply allowed the ball to float and let gravity do the work. And rather than rig up an elaborate labyrinth of sensors, the Atari device used beams of light to track the ball's movement. It wasn't quite as accurate as the Xerox device, though Yurchenco quickly realized that it didn't make much of a difference to the user who was staring at the cursor and not the mouse.
Apple's borrowed design effectively ruled the mouse market for decades, until the ball was completely replaced by optical devices. Yurchenco himself would go on to secure some 80 patents, become one of the first employees at IDEO, and design the Palm V, a truly revolutionary device in its day. If you're intrigued, check out Wired's new profile of Yurchenco who started out as a sculptor and is now regarded as one of the most influential industrial designers of his generation. He seems like a pretty cool guy, too! [Wired]
Images via Flickr / unabonger / IDEO