Chapter 10: CAD/CAM/CADD/CAE

10.3 Auto-trol / Applicon / ComputerVision


Auto-trol was one of several companies that crossed the Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Design & Drafting boundaries. Established in the Denver area in 1962, Auto-trol’s first product was a digitizer manufactured in the garage of the company founder, Bill Barnes. Mr. Barnes named the company Auto-trol as a shortened version of automated control, which he had called a product he developed in the 1950s. In its early years, Auto-trol manufactured hardware and software for drafting, marrying its original digitizer and flatbed plotter with minicomputers and display terminals.

In 1973, the Hillman Trust purchased Auto-trol. That same year, Auto-trol emerged as a pioneer in the fledgling CAD industry by announcing Auto-Draft, one of the first turnkey graphics systems available. Throughout the 1970s, the CAD industry expanded at a rapid rate, and Auto-trol expanded along with it. In January 1979, Auto-trol’s initial public offering was completed. Also in 1979, Auto-trol became the first company to market technical publishing applications to be used to produce the complex technical illustrations needed for service manuals, parts catalogs, and engineering documentation.


Fontaine Richardson was one of the first graduates of the University of Illinois computer science program, after which he went to MIT to join the Lincoln Labs group. In the summer of 1969, Richardson and three of his colleagues left Lincoln Labs and founded a company to commercialize computerized electrical engineering design tools. They called the new company Applicon. “Starting an application software company at the time was kind of crazy, kind of half-cocked,” recalled Richardson. Only a handful of companies, including the Norden Division of United Aircraft, GM, and Lockheed, were doing this sort of work.

Applicon built a suite of four products: one was for designing IC photomasks, one was for digital circuit simulation, one was for frequency domain circuit synthesis, and one for microwave circuit analysis. All were to be sold via timeshare, except for the IC photomask program, which required a stand-alone workstation or computer. They decided, because of economic concerns, to concentrate on the IC program, called the Design Assistant. Its first customer was Matsushita in Japan. The company grew from there, expanding to include printed circuit boards and hybrid circuits. Another package was added for three-dimensional designs (mainly for the automotive industry). They produced more and more applications, using the interactive screen design concept, and when Richardson left in 1980, after selling the company to Schlumberger and then merging it with MDSI which Schlumberger had acquired earlier, it was running at revenues of $100 million per year.


Computervision was created in 1969 to produce systems for production drafting and in the same year it sold the first commercial CAD system to Xerox. In 1978, Computervision introduced the first CAD terminal using raster display technology. In the late 1970s, Computervision made a costly decision to build their own computer system. Once the new 32-bit computer systems replaced the old systems, Computervision stopped their proprietary hardware development and switched to Sun Microcomputers. Prime Computer bought Computervision and their CAD software for mainframes and workstations in 1988. Just after the purchase Prime ran into financial trouble, canceling projects and making staff reductions. Prime tried to change into a UNIX workstation producer but the company was dying. VersaCAD Corp., previously known as T&W Systems, was also bought out by Prime Computer, Inc. In 1997, Computervision was purchased by Parametric Technologies, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary, and its CADDS 5 software joined the 
Pro/Engineer CAD/CAM/CAE software as a Parametric offering.