The Secretly Canadian History of the Computer Trackball
The evolution of the trackball, which is more than an upside-down mouse. It’s the Royal Canadian Navy’s greatest gift to modern-day computing. Really.
This piece is adapted from a recent piece of Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet. Here’s the original version.
Today in Tedium: Ever find yourself in a bar with a single arcade machine, and the machine is inevitably not targeting gamers? Like, rather than, say, a fighting game or something iconic like NBA Jam or even Donkey Kong, it’s either a variation of Big Buck Hunter, a bowling game like Silver Strike Bowling, or a golf game like Golden Tee. These games, of course, aim for a wide audience, quite literally in the case of Big Buck Hunter. But the golf and bowling games are notable, really, because of their control method — they don’t use a joystick; they use a massive trackball. As far as input devices go, the trackball is perhaps the nerdiest, and therefore the most interesting. It’s also older than you might expect. Today’s Tedium is gonna tell you all about it — and why it’s not just a glorified mouse. — Ernie @ Tedium
The trackball is older than the mouse, and we can thank the Canadian military for it
So, as it turns out, before the virtual bowling alley borrowed something from the trackball, the inventors of the trackball borrowed something from the actual bowling alley — specifically, the Canadian variation of it, called 5-pin bowling.
Unlike the giant hulking rocks that tend to get thrown in American bowling alleys, 5-pin relies on a ball slightly less than 5 inches in diameter — larger than a skee-ball (which is 3 inches in diameter) and roughly the size of the ball used in duckpin bowling, but using five pins, instead of 10 (hence the name).
Clearly, this is a fairly novel point about an object that has inspired a lot of other devices that have come since — and its one that hints at its initial creation in the early 1950s…