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Jul 13, 2020

Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today we’re going to cover yet another of the groundbreaking technologies to come out of MIT: Sketchpad. 

Ivan Sutherland is a true computer scientist. After getting his masters from Caltech, he migrated to the land of the Hackers and got a PhD from MIT in 1963. The great Claud Shannon supervised his thesis and Marvin Minsky was on the thesis review committee. But he wasn’t just surrounded by awesome figures in computer science, he would develop a critical piece between the Memex in Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and the modern era of computing: graphics. 

What was it that propelled him from PhD candidate to becoming the father of computer graphics? The 1962-1963 development of a program called Sketchpad. Sketchpad was the ancestor of the GUI, object oriented programming, and computer graphics. In fact, it was the first graphical user interface. And it was all made possible by the TX-2, a computer developed at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory by Wesley Clark and others. The TX-2 was transistorized and so fast. Fast enough to be truly interactive. A lot of innovative work had come with the TX-0 and the program would effectively spin off as Digital Equipment Corporation and the PDP series of computers. 

So it was bound to inspire a lot of budding computer scientists to build some pretty cool stuff. Sutherland’s Sketchpad used a light pen. These were photosensitive devices that worked like a stylus but would send light to the display, activating dots on a cathode ray tube (CRT). Users could draw shapes on a screen for the first time. Whirlwind at MIT had allowed highlighting objects, but this graphical interface to create objects was a new thing altogether, inputing data into a computer as an object instead of loading it as code, as could then be done using punch cards. 

Suddenly the computer could be used for art. There were toggle-able switches that made lines bigger. The extra memory that was pretty much only available in the hallowed halls of government-funded research in the 60s opened up so many possibilities. Suddenly, computer-aided design, or CAD, was here. 

Artists could create a master drawing and then additional instances on top, with changes to the master reverberating through each instance. They could draw lines, concentric circles, change ratios. And it would be 3 decades before MacPaint would bring the technology into homes across the world. And of course AutoCAD, making Autodesk one of the greatest software companies in the world. 

The impact of Sketchpad would be profound. Sketchpad would be another of Doug Englebart’s inspirations when building the oN-Line System and there are clear correlations in the human interfaces. For more on NLS, check out the episode of this podcast called the Mother of All Demos, or watch it on YouTube. 

And Sutherland’s work would inspire the next generation: people who read his thesis, as well as his students and coworkers. 

Sutherland would run the Information Processing Techniques Office for the US Defense Department Advanced Research Project Agency after Lick returned to MIT. He also taught at Harvard, where he and students developed the first virtual reality system in 1968, decades before it was patented by VPL research in 1984. Sutherland then went to the University of Utah, where he taught Alan Kay who gave us object oriented programming in smalltalk and the concept of the tablet in the Dynabook, and Ed Catmull who co-founded Pixar and many other computer graphics pioneers. 

He founded Evans and Sutherland, with the man that built the computer science department at the University of Utah and their company launched the careers of John Warnock, the founder of Adobe and Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics. His next company would be acquired by Sun Microsystems and become Sun Labs. He would remain a Vice President and fellow at Sun and a visiting scholar at Berkeley. 

For Sketchpad and his other contributions to computing, he would be awarded a Computer Pioneer Award, become a fellow at the ACM, receive a John von Neumann Medal, receive the Kyoto Prize, become a fellow at the Computer History Museum, and receive a Turing Award. 

I know we’re not supposed to make a piece of software an actor in a sentence, but thank you Sketchpad. And thank you Sutherland. And his students and colleagues who continued to build upon his work.