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Before There Was Visio, There Was SketchPad

Submitted by on November 19, 2013 – 12:50 pm | | 37022 views One Comment

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Ah, the days before color, when engineers wore ties!

One of the inspirations for Visio was an experimental piece of software created a long, long time ago. I was happy to finally track it down on the internet, finding articles and demo videos that I’d like to share with you!

When I was a kid in high school, I remember how my physics teacher, Mr. Eastley, always emphasized the history of the science he was teaching. We thought it was crazy that we needed to know names and dates, because we wanted to focus on the equations and the pure technical bits of the subject. But I swear, the day after summer break started, I began to really appreciate what he had done. Scientific accomplishment and technological breakthroughs are intimately related to the personalities and societal structures that form them. In the end, knowing some geek-history makes the dry-but-fascinating end products all that more rich and interesting.

Several years later, I was sitting in an office in downtown Seattle watching a video about computer-assisted drafting. At that time, we actually had to load a cartridge into a VCR and project the animation onto a wall. So somebody had to do some serious legwork for that brown-bag lunch meeting! I remember being impressed at how old, but well-developed the ideas for computer-based drafting were, and at how well the system worked for that early date in computing. If you look into computing history, you’ll find that a lot of the thought and algorithms were developed before there was any machinery capable of carrying anything out. I find this to be extremely cool.

Anyway, for years afterwards, I couldn’t remember the name of the software in that video. But we all know how serendipitous web browsing can be. I finally stumbled upon (or googled upon, or binged upon) the name: Sketchpad, also known as Robot Draftsman. Armed with a name, it was simple enough to find all sorts of resources online.

Sketchpad was created by Ivan Sutherland, as part of his PhD thesis at MIT back in 1963! You can read more about the history of Sketchpad on Wikipedia, but I’ll highlight some interesting bits here, and link to the demonstration videos at the end.

Engineerds at the time were well-dressed, formal creatures. I doubt that they had Legos, Nerf guns or guitars in their offices. This was your Dad or Grandpa back when he was in school:


God bless America and her engineers


It’s important to dress nicely for the lab equipment

These guys were quite serious about computer-assisted drawing. They weren’t just manipulating a line segment or two on a vector graphics terminal, they had a sophisticated plan.

In this scene, the operator introduces what he doing; “What I’ve done here is I’ve regarded that first picture (the pie slice) as a master, then I called up a copy of it, and I can manipulate it locally…” If you know Visio terminology, and a bit about how Visio works under the hood, your Spock eyebrow will raise at least two centimeters.


Instancing master shapes, Old School

3D was on the drawing board, too. Here we’ve got top, front, side and oblique views of a house object:



And some solid-modeling with hidden-line removal:


What is it? It’s a BRACKET, of course! What’s a bracket?

They were all over schematics as well. What Visio article would be complete with a mention of flowcharts?

What, no line jumps?

All in all, a fascinating watch, and amazing at just how long ago people had come up with really good ideas and made it work with the tech they had.

Watch it for yourself! There is a two-part video on YouTube. I’ll embed them here for you:

Sketchpad Demonstration Video 1/2:

Sketchpad Demonstration Video 2/2:

One Comment »

  • Tracy Kelly says:

    Hahah! This is great! I got my Visio Std 2013 from Tek-Micro.Com

    I’ve also been reading a lot about the new productivity suites such as Office Home Business 2011 and 2013.

    It’s amazing how all these programs evolved over the years.

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