1963: Sketchpad

Today, in the US, is a holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. It was in 1963 that Dr. King gave his famous, and still relevant, I Have a Dream speach. What was happening with interactive media at that time?

Well, most significantly, it was the same year that Ivan Sutherland published his PhD thesis at MIT —  for which he developed the revolutionary computer program Sketchpad. Sketchpad was the first program to have a graphic user interface. Using a light pen, users could draw directly on the screen. Prior to Sketchpad, no one had ever drawn engineering drawings directly on a computer display.

It may appear old-fashioned to our eyes today, but Sketchpad was built upon concepts to which modern interfaces can still only aspire. Most significantly: design abstraction. Sketchpad allowed users to communicate the higher-level principles that defined their design, so that they could easily make changes and the system would automatically adjust the rest of the design, or other frames of an animation.

Today, as designers, if we want to work in abstractions we still need to do so through programming. And while languages like Processing, and tools like Flash, have made that much easier, we still have a long way to go.

Sketchpad encountered a critical challenge that remains central to human-computer interaction. Sutherland’s original aim was to make computers accessible to new classes of user (artists and draughtsmen among others), while retaining the powers of abstraction that are critical to programmers. In contrast, [today’s] direct manipulation interfaces have since succeeded by reducing the levels of abstraction exposed to the user.
(From the 2003 preface to Sutherland’s reprinted thesis.)

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to use the system when it was running. Sadly, it was only operational for a short time period. When Sutherland’s thesis was finished the hardware was converted back to its original state.


Ivan Sutherland : Sketchpad Demo (Part 1/2)


Ivan Sutherland : Sketchpad Demo (Part 2/2)

Winking Girl, from Sketchpad thesis.

I’m trying to find examples of other interfaces, or interfaces in science fiction films, from this time period. If you have any suggestions please post it as a comment below or contact me via the About page.

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