Innovation, a story told by patent applications

Malcolm Gladwell has a homerun piece in this week's New Yorker, looking into the lesser-known facts of the Silicon Valley tall-tale of how Steve Jobs "stole" the idea for the computer mouse from PARC Xerox. Painting the Apple exec as a thief is a misnomer, and unfair in many ways, Gladwell attests. Jobs was merely doing what Jobs does best: identifying a great concept and making it even better. The article explains how in the days following his meeting at Xerox PARC, Jobs enlisted Dean Hovey, one of the founders of a design firm that would become IDEO to draft concepts for the first personal computer and mouse, while the engineers at Xerox PARC, some years later, went on to make their own revolutionary product, the laser printer.

After reading Gladwell's story, I started digging into the intellectual property history of Apple and Xerox PARC , specifically looking into the patent landscape around the time the companies were hashing out the personal computer and the first mouse in the early 80s. And in a strange way, the chronology of patent filings in the years following the now-historic meeting compliments the personality difference Gladwell paints between first movers and fast followers.

Behind closed-door meeting in the early 80s, Jobs' savvy insight into what customers wanted combined Hovey's ingenuity, allowing them to quickly scrape ideas together. In November 1980, the two (along with Jerrold Manock, of Apple, and David Kelley, another IDEO founder) sketched out their chic design for a personal computing system (well, at least compared to Xerox PARC's model), and just a few years later, in 1982, reserved the intellectual rights to their version of the mouse.

Apple, of course, went on to market the successful Macintosh computer. But what happened to the other characters involved, Hovey and Xerox PARC, in the immediate aftermath?

Well, we know that the mouse had captured Hovey's attention, and he went about making slight improvements to the device he and Jobs had registered with the US Patent Office. In 1983, after he founded his own company called Trace Systems, Inc., Hovey filed a patent for a device which, when held one way would function as a mouse, but when flipped around, its housing would provide enough support so that it could be used as a standard trackball.

At Xerox PARC, business also continued as usual. But true to form, the new effort of one of their engineers was once again marked by before-its-time innovation. Around the same time Hovey was filing intellectual property for modest improvements on an old design, an engineer at the research center named Richard Lyon filed a patent application, by himself, detailing a new kind of computer mouse, one that no longer needed that pesky trackball to move the cursor around. This new version would instead rely on optical sensors to keep tabs on the peripheral device's movement.

Wikipedia says the first "commercially successful" optical mouse debuted in 1999. But once again Xerox PARC was well ahead of the curve, 16 years to be precise.

As Gladwell says in his story, it's difficult for a company to be both a true innovator and one that can readily bring consumer products to market. And as the patents show, Xerox PARC and Apple weren't adversaries, because it seems they were never competing for the same prize.

Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at brian.mossop@gmail.com, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.