Three Computer Whizzes Build a Better Mouse Which Beats the World
07/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
Excitement at the starting gate was intense. The bleachers were packed, and the TV cameras began to roll. The judges checked their stopwatches, and then the first contestant was off and running, sensors atwitch and opticals scanning. The race was to the swiftest computer mouse through a maze: It was the Kentucky Derby of cybernetics.
"The Amazing Micro-Mouse Maze Contest," its official title, was sponsored by Spectrum (the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). The grand prize was $1,000, and it pulled 6,000 wizards from as far as Italy. For the $3.95 entry fee, each received a starter kit of electronic parts and a rather rigid set of rules. There was no specific ban on implanting a bionic brain in a live rodent, but one regulation read: "Mice may not deposit anything within the maze."
After a year and preliminary time trials on both coasts, 15 mice appeared in the finals at the National Computer Conference in New York. Nine of them crashed into walls (one was programmed to say "ouch"), went in the wrong direction or stopped dead in their chips (microprocessors). Of the six to finish the 8x8-foot maze, Moonlight Flash scurried through in the fastest time: 30.04 seconds.
Flash's creators are three young electrical engineers from the Battelle Memorial Institute research lab in Richland, Wash.: Art Boland and Ron Dilbeck, both 26, and Phil Stover, 29. To cover their bets, they entered three mice. Actually, the also-rans, Moonlight Express and Moonlight Special, were more sophisticated electronically than their winning stablemate, with six chips to his one. But Flash, Ron explained, was a "smart-dumb" mouse with better control at high speeds. Where did the names came from? "We worked such late hours," says Art, "that Moonlight just came naturally."
Having invested 1,000 hours of labor and $500 from their own pockets (not including travel expenses for the finals), the creators obviously weren't in it for the money. Indeed, they plan to blow their purse on a blast for everyone who helped. (Stover, who has moved on to help build the next generation of computer animals for Disneyland, will return to Washington for the party.) As for the better mice they built, the Moonlight racers were not retired to stud but are standing by for a European championship in London in 1980.