Chapter 1: The history of early computing technology

The history of early computing technology

Early contributions to computation influenced the development of graphics technology. This chapter addresses some of the more important of these contributions.

Radiosity Factory, Cornell University – 1988

The study of the history of CGI (computer generated imagery) is an important part of our overall educational experience, not necessarily to build on the historical precedent, but to gain an understanding of the evolution of our discipline and to gain a respect for the key developments that have brought us to where we are. The discipline is so recent in its early developments and so rapidly changing that we are in fact living it, and it evolves as we speak. Yet we have been so busy in advancing the discipline that we have often neglected to accurately record this history. So we will decide to agree upon certain past events in order to begin to develop a definitive record of what has transpired in this evolutionary process.

We must learn from the past, as we develop a theory and methodology which is tuned to the capabilities and qualities inherent in software, hardware, animation techniques, etc. that are part of our broad, contemporary, and creative computer graphics environment. It is in this context that this e-book has been developed.

Herbert Freeman, in an introduction to his 1980 IEEE compilation of computer graphics papers, presents a succinct overview of the first two decades of the development of the CGI discipline.[1] Like many other disciplines, computer graphics and animation has a rich (albeit relatively short) history that involves the following four eras, which are very much linked and related:

  1. pioneers
  2. innovators
  3. adapters

Early pioneers include artists (such as Chuck Csuri and John Whitney) and researchers (such as Ivan Sutherland and Ken Knowlton). These visionaries saw the possibilities of the computer as a resource for making and interacting with pictures, and pushed the limits of an evolving technology to take it where computer scientists never imagined it could go. Their work motivated the work of the others as they tried to realize the potential of this new vision. In this book, we will survey work from Sutherland, Csuri and Whitney, National Research Council of Canada (Burtnyk, Wein and Foldes), Michael Noll, Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton, and others.

Many of the so-called innovators were housed in universities and research labs, and were working toward solving fundamental problems of making “pictures” of data using the computer. We will survey work from many of these facilities, including Bell Labs, Ohio State, University of Utah, New York Institute of Technology, Evans & Sutherland and several aerospace and automotive companies, MIT, and others. Individual work of Nelson Max, Jim Blinn, Loren Carpenter, Turner Whitted, and others will also be reviewed.

The early adapters included pioneering CGI production facilities, artists, researchers, and research labs and industries with an interest in converting much of this early work into a viable (and marketable) tool for realizing their disparate goals. Notable companies include Robert Abel and Associates, Digital Effects, MAGI, Information International Inc., and others. Artists include more from Whitney Sr., Yoichiro Kawaguchi, David Em, and others.

The late seventies and early eighties saw the second wave of adapters, which were primarily special effects production companies, equipment and software developers, universities, motion picture companies, etc. We will survey work from Pacific Data Images, Cranston/Csuri Productions, Digital Productions, Omnibus Computer Graphics, Bo Gehring, and others.

As the technology advanced and the acceptance of this new approach to image making increased, the industry likewise evolved, and many of the current contributors, or followers (this descriptor is not intended to be demeaning or derogatory) came into being. These include effects production companies such as Pixar, Disney, Metrolight, Rhythm and Hues, ILM, Xaos, and others. We will also look at work from universities such as Cal Tech, Cornell, Ohio State, UNC, University of Illinois-Chicago, etc., and companies and research labs such as Apple, Sun, Xerox, SGI, Microsoft, Alias, Softimage, and others. We will look at the impact on related areas, such as HCI, design, multimedia, virtual reality, scientific visualization, etc.

  1. Tutorial and Selected Readings in Interactive Computer Graphics, IEEE computer Society tutorials, Herbert Freeman, IEEE Computer Society, 1980