When Computers Had Balls

Do you remember mouse balls? And track balls? Everybody’s computer had a computer mouse; most desktops still do. But up through the ‘90s the joke was that your computer’s mouse pointer or trackball device “had balls.”

The joke had legs because it was technically true. And because computer types were (and are) principally guys who like that kind of humor.

Some background: early mechanical computer mice contained a small, rubberoid ball whose rolling movement across your desk was tracked by sensors inside the mouse and then translated to cursor movement on your computer screen.

Mouse balls had a soft surface; it gave traction, but also attracted dirt. Dirty balls rolled unevenly; the cursor might hesitate and even stick in place as you pushed the mouse around. Then it was time to pop the ball out of the mouse and “wash your balls.”

Much of this “balls” humor originated at IBM. Sometime in the late ‘80s, an anonymous IBM service manager sent a joke memo to the field offices on “Replacement of Mouse Balls.” It hit the early Internet by storm. Some of my favorite excerpts:

“Mouse balls are now available as FRU (Field Replacement Units). Because of the delicate nature of this procedure, replacement of mouse balls should only be attempted by properly trained personnel.”

And:

Mouse balls are not usually static sensitive. However, excessive handling can result in sudden discharge

And of course:

“It is recommended that each person have a pair of spare balls for maintaining optimum customer satisfaction. Any customer missing his balls should contact the local personnel in charge of removing and replacing these necessary items.”

By the early 2000s, purely electronic optical mice had pushed out mechanical mice, and “mouse ball” jokes became a thing of the past. But trackball pointers are sold to this very day. This alternative to standard mice allows users to move the cursor by manipulating a ball atop the device with their fingertips.

Trackballs are popular with people who do a lot of “mousing” and want to avoid wear and tear on their wrists, elbows and shoulders. Trackballs have real balls, too: hard and plastic though they be. Kensington, a major manufacturer of trackballs, produced the t-shirt above to make absolutely sure that you remembered that.

Male computing humor remains in the toilet, as ever. Behold this several-years-old tee from Kensington’s competitor Logitech, another computer peripherals maker.

Did anyone ever actually dare wear that t-shirt? The one I snagged at Goodwill was pristine. And yet: after COVID-19 trapped everyone at home, pants-optional video conferencing became a way of life. Does Logitech have crystal balls?

Balls — get it? Heheheheheheh.

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