History of computer graphics

Phase I-Computers

In the 1950's computers used to be the size of garages. This was because they required thousands of very large vacuum tubes in order to do their stuff.

The vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors which made the computers a lot smaller, but still too big to fit on a desktop.

Then along came the invention which made personal computers possible. The microprocessor can hold millions of transistors.

intel8088.jpgIn 1974 a company called Intel invented a microprocessor called the 8088 which was finally powerful enough to run a whole computer.

At this point, Intel could have invented the first personal computer and owned the entire computing industry forever...but they didn't realize the potential of their invention.

In 1975, Ed Roberts invented the first personal computer called the Altair.

Now the Altair was hardly a microcomputer as we know them today. It had no place to hook up a keyboard, monitor or printer and it didn't even come assembled. It was really a computer kit. It consisted of several switches and a few lights.


At first, the only way to give this computer instructions was by flipping switches on an on in binary code.

Binary is the language computers use to communicate. Computers are really an extremely large conglomerate of switches. Computers do things by manipulating binary digits into data that represents things like pixels that we can understand.

Now, in order to make this computer really useful, the Altair needed to have a programming language. The folks that created the first Basic language for the Altair were Paul Allen and Bill Gates.

That started the second Phase of the revolution

Phase II-Microcomputers

After Basic was created for the Altair other computer kits came out and all kinds of computer hobbyists were tinkering around with computers.

What was really needed was a way to take the computers from the build it/assemble it yourself kit stage and start to build a computer that would have everything you needed in one package that you didn't have to assemble.

To do that you needed to have a genius that was smart enough to put all of the necessary chips in one computer board and another genius with the vision to build it. Those two men were the founders of Apple Computer Company Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. That computer was their second effort called the Apple II.

The Apple II became insanely successful and was again poised to take over the computing world if it wasn't for a company known as IBM. By this time in 1980 the microcomputer business had become a billion dollar industry and IBM wanted a piece of the action.

IBM was a maker of very large computers and had completely missed the microcomputer revolution. They didn't believe in microcomputers, but they were a large business company that was trusted by corporations.

Before IBM, microcomputers largely ignored in the business world. The problem was that computers were made by different manufacturers who were very young companies nobody trusted. IBM knew that it could rule the business computer world, but their problem was they were such a huge company that they couldn't get it accomplished in a decent timeframe.

IBM realized that if they tried to build their computer on their own it would have taken four years and hundreds of employees, so they needed a shortcut. One of their employees had a revolutionary idea. Instead of trying to build everything themselves, why not just buy already made parts from manufacturers and slap the IBM logo on it? This could produce the desired computer in one year.

Now everyone knows the two most important parts of a computer system are the hardware and the software. IBM had solved the problem of how to get the hardware, but now it needed two essential pieces of software it didn't have. As before, IBM needed a programming language and an operating system.

An operating system is the program that sits behind all other programs and handles communication between other software and hardware.

To acquire the programming language IBM hired the very experienced Microsoft team led by Bill Gates, but the folks who could have sold IBM the most popular Operating system of the time CP/M didn't want much to do with IBM and their corporate lawyers.

CP/M could have owned the PC business, but it dropped the ball.

So IBM went back to Microsoft. Gates in the most amazing deal of the century offered to take care of they operating system issue for IBM. What they did since they didn't have an operating system is buy an operating system for $50,000 from a small company called Seattle Computer products and license it to IBM. Who would then pay Microsoft $50 for every computer that they sold with the operating system.

IBM could have bought the operating system themselves, but didn't. SCP could have licensed it to IBM and been the Microsoft of our time.

In the next three years IBM sold over 2 million computers.

Phase III-The cloning revolution

At this time, there were many different types of computer running different processors. IBM now sold 50% of all computers that were made.

Since IBM had made the decision to make computers with parts you could buy from other manufacturers, it was very easy to build a computer that was IBM compatible except for a single IBM proprietary chip called the BIOS.

In 1982 a company named Compaq figured out how to clone the BIOS chip using a process called reverse-engineering. In the first year, they made one hundred and eleven million dollars in sales and eventually helped remove IBM from the personal computer industry.

Phase IV-The Graphical User Interface

In 1971, Xerox, the copier company, set up a special research facility in Palo Alto, California called the Palo Alto Research Center of PARC. Their goal was to develop products that would allow Xerox to be the leader in the future paperless office. This facility was the cradle of computer graphics as we know them.

PARC was virtual nirvana for geniuses. They were given almost unlimited resources with total intellectual freedom.

Out of this research facility came mice, a graphical user interface, the first computer network called ethernet and WYSIWYG printing.

But it was the business people in the company that just didn't get it. Xerox could have owned the personal computer industry, but it was killed by the corporate big wigs.

But fortunately for the computer world someone with the right vision came to the rescue, Steve Jobs got an invitation to see what was going on at PARC. What they had was very clunky and unfinished, but it made it clear to Steve that this was the way all computers were going to work from now on.

In 1984 Apple introduced the Macintosh and sparked the graphical user interface revolution

Phase V-Applications

The original Macintosh had almost no software and was not very well accepted into business. As a matter of fact the first successful software that was written for it came from Microsoft who wrote Word and Excel originally for the mac.

What made the mac a success also came from an idea from the SPARC lab. One of the SPARC scientists John Warnock, had invented a technology called PostScript that allowed a laser printer to print exactly what was on your screen. Up to that point, what was on the screen had nothing to do with what came out of your printer. You would type your document, then choose print and hear a dot matrix printer print out your document in one of maybe four standard fonts.

Adobe PostScript helped make the Macintosh a success and started a new industry called Desktop Publishing.

But PostScript was not enough. In order to make PostScript useful. The Mac needed a software program that was capable of manipulating postscript to lay out type and pages. This came from a small startup company named Aldus, the program was named Pagemaker and it revolutionized the industry.

Adobe shortly released Illustrator, another program that was designed to work hand in hand with postscript to produce a new type of graphics called Vector Graphics.

With the release of color computers, another program called Photoshop invented by the Knoll Brothers completed the circle to make Desktop Publishing an industry of it's own.

The Macintosh and Desktop publishing were the genesis of all computer graphics as we know them.

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