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Creator: Ivan Sutherland

By Rachael Dalton-Taggart


This is the first in a series of profiles taking a look at the people who madethe CAD industry what it is today.—DE

An unquenchable thirst for knowledge is a powerful motivator, and it has beenpresent in Ivan Sutherland since he was a young boy. The son of a civil engineerand a teacher, that thirst led to his becoming one of the few high school studentsin the 1950s to have written a computer program.

Ivan Sutherland, light pen in  hand,  circa 1963 with the TX-2 for which Sketchpadwas developed.

A visual thinker from the start, Sutherland is best recognized for his 1963 Ph.D.thesis at MIT, “Sketchpad: A Man-machine Graphical Communications System,” whichresulted in a software program that became one of the first tools used to ‘draw’on a computer. It was the very first graphical user interface before the termGUI was coined.

Sketchpad was developed for the TX-2 computer with a 9-in. monitor and a lightpen.Sutherland thought that one should be able to draw on the computer. In hindsight,while the development of Sketchpad was a major breakthrough in its own right,his work and documentation on this project laid the foundation for much of theCAD industry.

“The paper and dissertation by Sutherland … defined and described how peoplemight interact with graphics on a computer,” explains Dr. Joel Orr, chief visionaryat Cyon Research. “So clear and comprehensive was his exposition, that it woundup being a master plan for the computer graphics industry—as the hardware advancedto the point of being able to inexpensively express all that Sutherland outlined.”
At the time he earned his doctorate, the place to be if you were a computer researcherwas the U.S. Army. With his Ph.D. under his arm, Sutherland was commissioned alieutenant and joined the National Security Agency before being transferred tothe Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) where he manageda variety of research projects in computing such as timesharing and artificialintelligence.

When Sutherland completed his service, he spent two years as a Harvard professorbefore settling into a professorship at the University of Utah.

8 Years Inspiring the Computer Generation

At Utah, Sutherland and David Evans founded and ran the Computer Science programfor eight years. Simultaneously, these two professors also formed Evans andSutherland, a company that continues to develop training and simulation solutionsfor the military and aviation companies today.

According to Robert McDermott, who was a Ph.D. student working with Sutherlandin the early ’70s, Sutherland and Evans created a mecca at Utah for computer graphicsprofessionals, and inspired inventions, innovators, and future industry leaders.The invigorating atmosphere of innovation and exploration led to an impressivelist of achievements and alumni, including Dr. John Warnock, the founder of AdobeSystems. Now serving as chairman of the board, Warnock says, “Invention was therule of the day at Utah.”

That’s no exaggeration. Just consider the alumni from the Utah computer scienceprogram during that time: Alan Kay, credited as the inventor of the laptop computeras well as inventions for Xerox PARC and Apple Computer; Jim Clark, founder ofSilicon Graphics and Netscape; and Henri Gouraud and Phong Bui-Tuong, both ofwhom pioneered revolutionary shading methods for polygons still in use today.
Robert McDermott, who completed his Ph.D. under Sutherland, is now a staff scientistfor visualization at the University of Utah. “Ivan Sutherland was the best atwhat he did,” says McDermott. “Just about everything … he did, described, researched,and proved in the computing science field was dead right.”
While working on his doctorate, Warnock worked closely with Sutherland at Utahbetween 1967 and 1969. “Ivan had a knack for attacking, dissecting, and understandingthe taxonomy of any technical problem given to him,” he says. “He also had a wayto explain any problem and its solution in a crystal-clear manner. This made hima great teacher.”

While computer graphics was blossoming at Utah under Sutherland, Dick Sowar,a founder of Spatial, Inc. (a 3D solid-modeling company) and now CEO of Geomenon,was undergoing graduate studies in computer communications at the Air Force Instituteof Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “I used to visit ]Utah]every few months in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says Sowar. “Officially,I went to review what was happening and to see how the work applied to my ownresearch. … Amazing things were happening there and they still affect the worldof 3D data and design today.”

In 1976, Sutherland moved to Caltech to become its computer science departmenthead. There he helped introduce integrated circuit design as an academic subject,which spawned advances in chip design and created the phenomenon known as SiliconValley. In 1980, he became the founding technical director of Sutherland, Sproulland Associates, a small research company acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1990.

Sutherland’s Current CAD Legacy

According to an Association for Computing Machinery Turing Award presented in1988, Sutherland was honored “For his pioneering and visionary contributions tocomputer graphics, starting with Sketchpad and continuing after. Sketchpad, thoughwritten 25 years ago, introduced many techniques still important today. Theseinclude a display file for screen refresh, a recursively traversed hierarchicalstructure for modeling graphical objects, recursive methods for geometric transformationsand an object-oriented programming style….” And that was 20 years ago.

According to Randall Newton, editor in chief of AEC Automation News, the honor,though bestowed in 1988, is still fresh because recursive methods of geometryprogramming are still in force today.

“Recursive programming was applied by Sutherland to enable polygonal forms tobe displayed and built up by combining simple processes over and over,” says Newton.”In other words, a polygon would be made up of several smaller polygons, eachof which in turn were created from other polygons made of polygons. Sutherlandhit on techniques so elemental, that even with the incredible advances we attributeto 40 years of Moore’s Law, they are still relevant. This is brilliance of colossalproportions.”

High praise indeed. And even if he isn’t the sole owner of the title Creatorof Computer Graphics as many consider him, Ivan Sutherland has profoundly affectedthe entire world of computing.

Rachael Dalton-Taggart is the founder of Strategic Reach PR and David Weisberg is chief industry strategistand CAD historian for Cyon Research. You can send comments about this articlevia e-mail to Desktop Engineering Feedback.


GIT, College of Computing
Assoc. for Comp. Machinery, Turing Awards
Cyon Research Corporation and David Weisberg’s History of CAD

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