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The Story of the Trackball, Canada’s Earliest Gift to Computing

via MOTHERBOARD

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 unheralded, nerdy, and niche—your cursor’s red-headed stepchild. But it set the stage for more popular cursor-control mechanisms. It’s also older than you might expect.

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 it’s one that hints at its initial creation in the early 1950s. The device is Canadian through and through, a project formulated at the behest of the Royal Canadian Navy by the manufacturing firm and defense industry vendor Ferranti Canada, as part of a much larger project—a military information system called Digital Automated Tracking and Resolving, or DATAR.

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