At a time when computer CRT monitors were hot news, and operating memory was measured on tens of kilobytes, MIT developed a first computer capable of recording a pen drawing on the monitor.
If you were doing a dissertation work in electrical engineering and computer science at the beginning of the sixties, who would you like to have as a trainer and opponent? What about Claude Shannon, perhaps Marvin Minsky (creator of the first HMD and computer AI legend) and Steven Coons? It was this trio that supervised the young student Ivan Sutherland, who completed his doctoral work on computer graphics at MIT. The result was the first graphics tablet, the first interactive graphics artwork and manipulation program, and the first graphical user interface precursor. As if only one of these was not enough to make a man at the age of twenty-five become a legend of computer history.
Building drawings, drawing board, ink and pen - that was the environment in which during the 1940s little Ivan, the son of a construction engineer who moved with his family from the American Midwest to the East Coast. The fact that Ivan Sutherland did not grow up in his native Nebraska had an even more important consequence: as a schoolboy he met Edmund Berkeley, the author of the first book on computers for the general public (Great Brains or Machines That Think, 1949) and the first "computer building kit" - Simon - equipped with 12-bit relay memory, which was sold for $ 600 at the beginning of the 1950s.
However, that the brothers did not know Sutherland. They were looking for a way to make some money, and Berkeley needed help with chopping the lawn and general garden maintenance. After a short time, they became friends and he began to teach them the basics of programming just on the little Simon. In particular, the elder Ivan was really excited for programming, and after a while he wrote a four-page splitting program for Simon. Ivan Sutherland has probably become perhaps the first high school graduate in the world - and it is no surprise that when he entered college he entered electrically engineered college instead of the originally planned civil engineering. After completing his bachelor's degree at Carnegie Mellon University, he first headed to Caltech, where he completed his master's studies and then went on as a doctoral student at MIT - here, as we have already indicated, he began writing the history of Sketchpad.
Ivan Sutherland, in the introduction to his doctoral thesis, highlights the important role played by the TX-2 computer originally designed for artificial intelligence research. In particular, it’s large magnetic core memory with a capacity of approximately 256 kilobytes (70,000 words with a 36-bit width), a large number of indexed registers, flexible input and output control, and a range of manual switches, rotary relays and control buttons. Because it was an experimental research computer, it was possible to complete custom-made elements or peripherals (such as a control button module). Experimenting with cartooning and manipulation of shapes could move forward very quickly, and as Sutherland himself emphasized, "when we found out how to draw on a computer, the use of much smaller machines could be used for practical deployment."
But that does not mean Sutherland's job was easy. He had to create software to draw straight and curved lines, circles, rectangles and polygons literally from scratch - without the use of higher programming languages (not to mention libraries, etc.), solve how to work with overlapping elements, how to manipulate individual elements of shapes lubricate. All this on an "experimental" mainframe with tens of kilobytes of memory. It took him almost a year.
A few months later, Sutherland finished with a few colleagues third, as part of his dissertation, the final version of Sketchpad, which, according to his own words, could work even unskilled people including the secretary. A library of basic shapes and elements has been created to serve to create more complex drawings faster. It was clear to Sutherland that he had created a software and software with the potential "beyond the dreams".
Looking at the TX-2, it is clear that the concept of "first tablet" is somewhat exaggerated. Still, in the graphics tablet, a multi-ton colt with a CRT screen and Sketchpad software was. But the sketchpad was not just the software - it was a solution involving interactive real-time computer interaction (long before a similar concept became common), interactive "graphical" user interface (quotes are mainly because there was no abstraction in the "only" option to directly manipulate shapes as objects - to draw, scroll, rotate, shrink or enlarge, copy, and delete). But it was the biggest revolution - the transformation of a computer screen into a drawing board or a sketch capable of replicating innumerable images or shapes over and over again. Sketchpad was even able to work with three-dimensional objects and was so "user-tuned" that random shuffle movements (usually the user's "hand" with the pen) ignored and did not transfer them to the recorded shapes.
Sutherland's Sketchpad, unfortunately, was one of the revolutionary achievements that overtook his time. The era of interactive computer work and graphical interfaces should come in over ten years, and the software created for the TX-2 unique research computer could not simply be transferred to other platforms. In addition, computer graphics research over the next decade has focused on other areas - particularly surface rendering techniques (shading, textures, pixels). Well, finally, Sutherland himself reorientated himself to a completely new field immediately after obtaining a doctorate - a virtual reality research
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