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A Brief History of Computer Graphics


  • Although the punched card was first used in 1801 to control textile looms, they were first used as an input medium for “computing machines” in 1941. Special typewriter-like devices were used to punch holes through sheets of think paper. These sheets could then be read (usually by optically based machines) by computers. They were the first input device to load programs into computers.


  • Salustri used punched cards in 1980 in his first-year Introduction to Computing course at the University of Toronto.


  • Ben Laposky created the first graphic images, an Oscilloscope, generated by an electronic (analog) machine. The image was produced by manipulating electronic beams and recording them onto high-speed film.


  • The Whirlwind computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the first computer with a video display of real time data.



1955_sagelightpen.jpg lightpen.jpg


  • Although known since the 1940's, the first serious work on finite element methods of analysis is now published. FEA allows us to test products virtually and produce results that are as accurate as physical tests - at far less cost and time. The results of such an analysis was, back then, hundreds of pages of numbers that humans had to interpret. These days, thanks to computer graphics, we can literally see what would happen to our products in real-time.

A modern FEA of a bicycle frame.


  • Fil Salustri was born.
  • The first video game, SpaceWar, ran using an oscilloscope as a display.
  • Oscilloscopes are vector displays.
  • Ivan Sutherland writes the first computer drawing program - SketchPad - which included things like pop-up menus.
  • To generate one GFLOPS1) of processing power with 1961 technology, you would need to spend over $8 trillion (in 2013-adjusted US dollars).

1961_spacewar.jpg sutherlandsketchpad.jpg




  • Jack Bresenham invents the “ideal” line-drawing algorithm.
  • NASTRAN FEA software released.


  • Size of CAD market estimated at $25 million.
  • ANSYS founded.




  • K. Vesprille's PhD dissertation “Computer-Aided Design Applications of the B-Spline Approximation Form” develops the mathematical representation of arbitrary curves suitable for computation.


  • The Apple II is the first graphics personal computer.
  • Star Wars is released; its only computer effects were vector-based, and then filmed.
  • CADAM, the first commercial 2D CAD package, is released.
  • McDonnell Douglas buys United Computing, forming Unigraphics.




  • Size of CAD market estimated at $1 billion.



  • The Commodore 64 personal computer used raster graphics so that regular televisions could be display devices.
  • TRON is the first movie to make extensive use of computer graphics.
  • AutoCAD 1.0 is released - it uses wireframe representation only.
  • SDRC I-deas CAD package released.
  • Voelcker introduces the notion of a voxel.
  • The Apple Lisa was a fantastic computer that failed. The Lisa was first introduced at a cost of $9,995 US ($20,893 in 2007 dollars). It was one of the first commercial personal computers to have a GUI and a mouse. It used a Motorola 68000 CPU at a 5 MHz clock rate and had 512 KB or 1 MB RAM. This made it a quantum leap in technology.
    • But it was so innovative that it was wrong2). It simulated hardware in software, so it's very powerful CPU seemed slow to users. Also, there was no real software for it - it was in some ways too powerful. And it was certainly too expensive.

www.larwe.com_museum_img_c64system.jpg seandodson.files.wordpress.com_2008_07_tron_lightcycles.jpg upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_b_b6_apple_lisa.jpg


  • To generate one GFLOPS of processing power, you would need to spend over $30 million in 2013-adjusted US dollars. (Compare that to the 1961 data.)
  • The original Macintosh was in many ways a “stripped down” Lisa. It had 20% of the base memory of the Lisa, but it ran faster because it used conventional hardware configurations. In the design of the Macintosh, Apple recognized that computational power was only one of many aspects of computer use by humans and that if they wanted a good design, they would have to satisfy human nature.
    • The Macintosh set a new standard for computer design, and for design in general. This went to the point of establishing Apple as the “anti-IBM” (these days, the anti-PC) with a television advertisement originally aired during Superbowl XVIII3).


  • Pixar releases Luxo, Jr.
  • Voxel technology is embedded in most medical imaging software.


  • VGA graphics standard introduced. Pro/Engineer launched as first pure UNIX CAD software. Everyone laughed. 18 months later, all major CAD vendors were developing CAD for UNIX.


  • CATIA selected as CAD package for Boeing 777 leading to a $1 billion revenue for Dassault.


  • SVGA graphics standard introduced.
  • The Parasolid solid model engine standard released by Unigraphics; it is licensed to nearly every other vendor.
  • Tim Berners-Lee creates the very first website ever (this is even the actual original URL). The version linked here is from 1993, as it seems older backups have gone missing. (more info)


  • EDS buys Unigraphics.


  • All major CAD packages run on UNIX. SMEs lead the change from mainframes to high-end UNIX workstations. IBM loses $5 billion because no one wants mainframes any more.


  • UIUC releases Mosaic, the first web browser for general usage. Mosaic's “codename” was mozilla.
  • Jurassic Park was the first big-budget CGI effects movie.
  • First public call made from a cell phone.


  • Dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century, Autodesk finally releases a 3D version of AutoCAD.
  • Key developers of the Mosaic browser found Netscape.
  • First flight of Boeing 777, tested entirely via ANSYS.



  • Toy Story, the first fully CGI movie, is released.
  • Solidworks is released.
  • MS Internet Explorer 1.0 is released.



  • To generate one GFLOPS of processing power, you would need to spend over $40,000 2013-adjusted US dollars.


  • The Mozilla Foundation is created out of the remains of the Netscape.


  • To generate one GFLOPS of processing power, you would need to spend about $1,000 2013-adjusted US dollars.
  • Sketchup, the first web-based CAD system, is released.


  • Final Fantasy movie is released.
    • Rendering tears and water are now possible; the movement of hair still un-renderable.
  • EDS buys SDRC; Unigraphics and I-deas CAD packages merged to for NX.



  • Doom3 graphics engine for games.
  • ANSYS acquires CFX - computational fluids now begins to become popular.
  • is registered as a non-profit organization.



  • Google acquires Sketchup.


  • opens an office in Toronto.


  • The state of the art of computer graphics, as of 2009, is summarized in this short video.


  • Computations fluids and fluid structure interactions now possible on laptop PCs.


  • One GFLOPS of processing power costs about $1.80.


  • Here's a summary of the state of the art in computer graphics, as of 2012, courtesy SIGGRAPH.



  • One GFLOPS of processing power costs about $0.16. That's about 100 trillion times cheaper than in 1961 (when Fil Salustri was born).
  • It is now possible to create, on virtually any home computer, the kind of computer graphics that would have been unimaginable even just 10 years ago.


  • It's getting so easy to do interesting things with cheap computers - like a typical laptop - that developers are now starting to take advantage of mistakes in rendering as the foundation of new games, like this one by Pillow Castle, called The Museum of Simulation Technology.

Also, we have gotten much better at digitizing real things and turning them into other things. Consider this clip:

Here's how it was done:


  • We're now getting into a period where “big data” is being used to construct animations that show us things we could not otherwise see/appreciate, like time-lapse changes in large structures. You can see more of 2015's best graphics research here.
  • Another new trend is the use of animation in UI design on mobile computing4). For instance, here's what Google suggests in its Material Design language for web design:


With enough preparation, we can now animate by mapping from a source to a target in real time. (With sometimes hilarious results.)

The last 10-15 years of CAD have mostly been about product lifecycle management which is much more than just CAD. CAD developments themselves have been relatively minor.


That research on real-time face animation (reported in 2016) works at “production level” and is used by game developers.


It is now possible to do fascinating and “realistic” graphics on phones. For instance:

We can also now generate entirely CGI-based human faces in real time.


Remember that bug that let you play with objects' actual sizes based on their apparent sizes on the screen (see 2014, above)? Well, an actual game came out in 2019, Superliminal, that leverages that “bug” to create a very interesting game.

A gigaFLOPS - one billion floating point operations per second - is the modern standard for measuring processing speed.
Note: Steven Jobs was not associated with the Lisa, rather he joined the development team of the next product.
…incidentally starting the “tradition” of particularly well-done advertisements during all subsequent Superbowls.
remember that your phone is a bazillion times more powerful a computer than the most powerful computer on Earth when I was born
mec222/brief_history_of_computer_graphics.txt · Last modified: 2020.08.13 12:59 by Fil Salustri