The roots of CAD, part 1

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Douglas Ross, explaining the MIT TX-0, one of the first computers with a graphics display

The term “Computer-Aided Design” was first coined around 1959, at MIT. While it was likely Douglas Ross who first came up with the term, Steven Coons and John Ward were also involved in the earliest stages of what ultimately became the MIT Computer-Aided Design Project.

 In 1963, Steven Coons wrote about the beginnings of the CAD project:

“About four years ago there was a meeting of members of the Computer Applications Group with members of the Design Division of the Mechanical Engineering Department to see whether it might be possible to take another important step. At that meeting we discussed the possibility of using the computer in a much more direct and powerful way in the chain of events that begins with the original concept as envisioned by the design engineer and culminates in the production of the finished device. We outlined at that meeting a system that would in effect join man and machine in an intimate cooperative complex, a combination that would use the creative and imaginative powers of the man and the analytical and computational powers of the machine each with the greatest possible economy and efficiency.

“We envisioned even then the designer seated at a console, drawing a sketch of his proposed device on the screen of an oscilloscope tube with a “light pen,” modifying his sketch at will, and commanding the computer slave to refine the sketch into a perfect drawing, to perform various numerical analyses having to do with structural strength, clearances of adjacent parts, and other analyses as well. Based on such analyses the designer would modify his original design concept, and again call for an analytical procedure by the computer. In some cases the human operator might initiate an optimization procedure to be carried out entirely automatically by the computer; at other times the human operator might intervene, as he might do for instance if in a certain iterative process he observed the computer laboring fruitlessly to satisfy mutually incompatible constraints unwittingly imposed, or attempting to find a solution to a problem in a mathematical region which might seem to the computer a likely place to look, but which to the man might be obviously far afield. The different powers of man and machine are complementary powers, cross-fertilizing powers, mutually reinforcing powers. It is becoming increasingly clear that the combined intellectual potential of man and machine is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Since this meeting, a formal arrangement was created for the combined efforts of the Computer Applications Group and the Design Division to work together in a broad study of what we call Computer-Aided Design. This activity is supported by a contract from the same Air Force group that sponsored M.I.T. efforts in both numerical control and APT. The investigations under the contract range over the entire spectrum of computer technology and of design philosophy and methodology. Out of the investigation will come the design for a man-machine organism to accomplish the design process in a way far easier than has ever before been possible; but as by-products will come new computer techniques and an enriched understanding of the creative thought process.”

The MIT CAD Project ran from 1959 until 1970, and ultimately involved 129 technical personnel, including representatives from many of the largest computer and aerospace companies in the United States.

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