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Architecture alum helped design Apple’s original mouse

A chainsaw he disassembled out of boyhood curiosity helped architecture alum Douglas Dayton cut through any doubt he might have had about a design career, a career that included his role in co-developing
Apple’s original mouse

by M.B. Reilly

You might say that Douglas Dayton was cut out for a design career from a very early age.
He recalls a day when he was about 10 years old and his father brought home a new chainsaw. It was a tool his father was never able to use – because the younger Dayton had immediately disassembled the device to figure out how it worked.

"I took it completely apart, down to every part of the motor, before Dad could ever use it," Dayton laughs. "Unfortunately, at about 10 years of age, I couldn’t put it all back together for him. It was never usable after that.”

For Dayton, an alumnus of the University of Cincinnati’s architecture program, that same boyhood curiosity, combined with greater academic and professional experience, brought far more challenging projects with, happily, far more successful results.

Dayton, a Cincinnati native who today lives in the town of Harvard, Mass., had early success in architecture, working for BBN Architecture and The Architects’ Collaborative in Boston after his 1973 graduation from UC’s then College of Design, Architecture and Art, what is today the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).

But then a downturn in the economy combined with youthful restlessness sent him to California, where he earned a 1979 master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and the opportune chance to work with a then little-known, start-up company of less than 100 employees — Apple Computer.

“In 1976, I had already passed my registration boards and had just completed my first project as a lead architect, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be," he says. "I was interested in doing cutting-edge work; however, the economy at the time was bad, with an oil embargo and long gas lines everywhere. The depressed economy was also depressing people’s appetites for exciting, risky projects. Overall, the field of architecture at the time was quite conservative, and I wanted to expand my horizons.”

That being the case, he decided to return to school to pursue a second degree in engineering since “I was really interested in the engineering aspects of design, and Stanford was the most-experimental and open-minded program.”

It was a decision that led directly to the project he is most proud of in a career where he’s come to file 250 patents to his name.

The memorable mouse

Dayton and Stanford grads David Kelley, Jim Yurchenco and Jim Sachs were all working at Hovey-Kelley Design in Palo Alto, Calif., when they were tasked with developing a mouse for Apple Computer that would allow users to avoid remembering keyboard commands in order to execute tasks.

The team was asked to design a mouse that was precise, reliable, durable, easy-to-use and one that hit a low price point of $10. This at a time when the reference prototype mouse cost hundreds of dollars, malfunctioned regularly and was nearly impossible to clean.

“We got the chance because mechanical engineers were rare in Silicon Valley at that time," Dayton adds. "They had mostly electrical and software engineers.”

He points out that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs "wanted the personal computer to become as ubiquitous as bikes in Europe, which were and are used by everyone everywhere there.”

In looking back at that project and others for Apple, Dayton admits he did not have any sense of destiny about the work: “What I thought was that it looked like a fun challenge. I was right out of school, as were my colleagues. We were smart, creative, but I cannot say that I knew we were helping to create Silicon Valley and even much wider technology, social and cultural history. To me, it was like a challenging graduate thesis project.”

Dayton recalls doing what he did as a 10-year-old curious about how a chainsaw worked. He and the others disassembled the acquired prototype mouse: “We took it apart, and it was highly complex inside. I look back on it now and the word ‘medieval’ comes to mind.”

In the end, the team at Hovey-Kelley Design “came in with a mouse that met all the requirements but at a somewhat higher cost of goods,” according to Dayton, who adds, “I still have enormous file folders in my desk drawer on these early Apple projects.”

That original mouse was in production for about a year before it  was again redesigned by others.

And Dayton eventually moved back to Boston from the West Coast and has worked both independently and for a variety of firms, including IDEO (as director of emerging enterprise and founder/director of IDEO’s Boston office) and IDEO’s Umagination Labs (as director of design), Wang Labs (director, Advanced Product Development Lab) and Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics POC (director of engineering-user experience design).

And of all his many projects since, the one he might be most proud of is another computer-related development that had a profound influence on the world: A counterweighted arm to support a computer monitor, allowing the monitor to be positioned for the user’s convenience. Counterbalanced monitors for ergonomic positioning have become the standard we expect today.

Dayton credits UC’s challenging design program for much of this success.“I had the best time at DAA(P)," he says. "Every part of the program fulfilled my strong desire for design experimentation and exploration. All the classes made you think and want to explore. The entire UC curriculum and co-op program gave me self confidence of both the gut and the head. I knew I had a great foundation on the basics and process of design that could be applied to anything that needs to be created.”

And, of course, exploration and experimentation came second nature to Dayton, whose mother, Elizabeth Dayton, earned her master’s of fine arts at DAAP in 1971 and whose father, Robert Weller Dayton, was professor of architecture at UC before his untimely death at age 50, when Douglas was just 14.

Even as a student with a heavy course and studio load, the younger Dayton found time to design and make jewelry for family and friends. He took as many fine arts ceramics courses as he could, and, starting in his sophomore year, Dayton began a seven-year project to build a Formula V race car, inspired by his technical coursework in architecture.

He estimates that he did “about one million tests” with that car, and even raced it in a handful of amateur competitions.

And, as such, Dayton jokes, that the Formula V car represents his one regret in life: “If I could change anything, it would have been to have a little bit more success as a race-car driver.”

Stanford Magazine article: "Mighty Mouse"