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A Brief, Personal History of Computer Graphics Disclosure Number: IPCOM000131261D
Original Publication Date: 1978-Nov-01
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Nov-10
Document File: 9 page(s) / 35K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Carl Machover: AUTHOR [+3]


Has computer graphics come of age? Yes -- several times, with more companies, better technology, and lower costs each time.

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This record contains textual material that is copyright ©; 1978 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Contact the IEEE Computer Society (714-821-8380) for copies of the complete work that was the source of this textual material and for all use beyond that as a record from the SPI Database.

A Brief, Personal History of Computer Graphics

Carl Machover

Machover Associates Corporation

Has computer graphics come of age? Yes -- several times, with more companies, better technology, and lower costs each time.

A formal history of computer graphics needs to be written -- one that recognizes the people, the companies, and the events that have led to today's $1.5 billion industry. The history should be researched, footnoted, complete, and accurate.

This article is not that history. This is a personal history of computer graphics -- one observer's perception of the field in which he has been involved for the last two decades. In this "memory dump," aided by notes, conversations, and old files, I may confuse or mistime events, inadvertently omit important work and important people, and reach "gut" conclusions that perhaps could not be substantiated by rigorous analysis; but with these cautions in mind, let's proceed.

The beginnings

One way to look ' et the history of computer graphics is to look at eras, giving each era a name. For example, the middle 50's to the early 60's was the "beginnings" era. The early 60's to the late 60's was the "gee whiz, look what aerospace and autgmotive is doing" era. The late 60's to the early 70's was the "let's form a new graphics company" era. And now, the middle to end of the 70's is the "everybody into the pool" era.

It could be argued* that the first computer graphics systems appeared with the first digital computers. MIT's Whirlwind computer had CRT graphic displays in the control room (Figure 1).


Another early use of computer graphics as a manmachine interface was the SAGE air-defense command and control system of the middle 50's. SAGE converted radar information into computer- generated pictures. SAGE also introduced the light pen, which allowed the operator to select information by simply pointing at the appropriate target displayed on the CRT (Figure

2). I have never read anything that tells who invented the light pen, but the lore I am familiar with ascribes the invention to Bert Sutherland, recently of Bolt Beranek and Newman. (Bert Sutherland is the brother of Dr. Ivan Sutherland, about whom more in a moment.)

In a non-military environment during the 50's and early 60's, the TX1 computer at MIT featured a similar type of interactive graphics console. One of the early Digital Equipment Corporation interactive computer graphic displays, the Type 30, was modeled after the MIT TX1 system (Figure 3). Another early DEC development evolved from the Type 30 experience --...