The Highs and Lows of CAD Hardware (Cadalyst's 25th Anniversary Celebration, Part 3 of 5)

31 May, 2008 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst's Ron LaFon takes a look at the myriad advancements of computer-related hardware during the past 25 years.

When I first sat down at a computer in the early 1980s, the system in front of me was about as far removed as possible from the computers I use today. That first system was an Apple II computer, and my task was to figure out if it could be used to typeset a book for the publishing company that employed me.

It was a daunting but intriguing experience, and in those days there were very few people I could ask for help or advice, so I had to figure it out largely by myself. After a few stumbles, I managed to insert all the appropriate codes in the document, put it on a floppy disk, and send it off to the service bureau. I got back beautiful 2450 dpi typeset output — which was then cut up and pasted on boards to create the book layout.

That old Apple gave way to a clone of the newly introduced IBM XT that would begin to revolutionize these machines, and they would come to dominate our desktops (figure 1). Interesting software, such as spreadsheet and database applications, began to appear, and Autodesk, an upstart company, brought CAD from high-end computer systems to these new desktop computers. Around that time, the IBM Personal Computer AT was introduced with the 80286 processor, which allowed for a whopping 15 MB of memory (figure 2). For those who think RAM is expensive these days, I remember adding a 2 MB expansion RAM card to my then-current system for the better part of $1,000.

Figure 1. The IBM PC XT. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)
Figure 1. The IBM PC XT. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)

With the ever-increasing sophistication of software, graphic applications started to come into their own. I remember the excitement of actually seeing color displays — the EGA graphics cards introduced by IBM in 1984 for the PC-AT computer provided 16 colors at resolutions as high as 640 x 350 pixels. With EGA, each of the 16 colors could be assigned a unique RGB color code by a palette mechanism.

Figure 2. The IBM PC AT had more than 15 MB maximum memory, thanks to the 24-bit address bus of the 286 processor. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)
Figure 2. The IBM PC AT had more than 15 MB maximum memory, thanks to the 24-bit address bus of the 286 processor. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)

The introduction of VGA in 1987 made EGA obsolete, but in its day it was a remarkable innovation. NEC was there at the beginning with its MultiSync monitors (figure 3), and the more capable systems typically would have a 286-based processor coupled with an EGA graphics card displaying on a NEC MultiSync display.

Figure 3. MultiSync monitors, circa 1985. (Courtesy of NEC Display Solutions)
Figure 3. MultiSync monitors, circa 1985. (Courtesy of NEC Display Solutions)

Printing from your computer also was undergoing a revolution. Dot-matrix and line printers were the order of the day until Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP LaserJet. Capable of clean output (fused toner instead of ink) and high resolutions (300 dpi), the HP LaserJet revolutionized printing.

Laser printers would grow in sophistication, eventually allowing duplex printing, higher printing resolutions, and even color laser output. Ink-jet printers made their appearance in the 1980s, making color printing both feasible and affordable for desktop users, and now color laser printers are becoming affordable and more mainstream.

Evolution of Storage

With the growing power and increasingly larger hard drives that were appearing in systems, the 5.25" and 3.5" floppy drives soon became inadequate for storing and transferring files, so a number of devices began to appear on desktop systems. Digital audio tape (DAT) drives became a popular, if pricey, means of doing system backups, and optical cartridges drives, such as those by Pioneer, became a costly means of storing data off the system. I used to have such a drive, and it worked well when it wasn't in the repair shop. Cartridges were approximately $125 in the dollars of those days. The market was obviously ready for the writable CD and DVDs that were soon to transform the media-storage market.

If you wanted to get a data file to a colleague across the country, you could send it via mail or send it through the telephone lines via a modem. Early on you were limited to 300 baud modems, which soon gave way to 1,200 baud, 2,400 baud, and then 5,600 baud models from vendors such as Hayes and US Robotics. Small wonder that broadband communications helped the Internet take off and develop to the level of graphical sophistication we know today.

In the early 1980s, the PC operating system of choice was one or another flavor of DOS (disk operating system), usually from either IBM or that upstart Microsoft. Then came Windows riding on top of DOS and then subsuming DOS entirely to be an operating system in its own right, and the graphical interface and mouse became a common way of interacting with IBM-compatible PCs.

A system running an early version of AutoCAD typically had at least a 12" x 12" digitizing tablet alongside the monitor; a folded AutoCAD template was included with early versions of AutoCAD just to use on these input devices. IBM briefly marketed a sophisticated operating system called OS/2 that was an accomplished competitor for MS Windows. Microsoft Windows was, and still is, a juggernaut. Love it or hate it, it's the operating system you'll find on most computers these days in one version or another.

The dream systems envisioned by users when Cadalyst appeared during the mid-1980s had a way of becoming the standard desktop systems in fairly short order. The staggering pace of technology during this time made it all possible and secured for the PC a central place for everything from business operations to design studios. My early efforts at typesetting a book became much more easily accomplished with page-layout software such as PageMaker, Quark Xpress, and Adobe InDesign.

An Eye on the Future

Since I began writing for Cadalyst in the mid-1980s, things have certainly changed, and often in ways that were unimaginable in the early days of the publication. I watched as the systems being tested progressed from benchmarks that chugged along slowly, often with each step of the running script being all too painfully visible, to fully mapped objects that move and transition faster than the eye can follow — even dizzyingly at times. Having seen these transitions in hardware and its capabilities firsthand over the years, I naturally wonder what the next 25 years will bring.

I'm reminded how inaccurate projections of the future can be in looking at Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it was predicting a future some 33 years ahead, by the time 2001 actually did roll around, the folly of predicting the future was at times painfully obvious. My computer, while a true workhorse, doesn't speak to me; TWA no longer exists as a transportation carrier; and the telecommunication displays and computer graphics are a lot more sophisticated than anticipated by the movie.

Whatever does come next in terms of computer hardware, it will no doubt be as amazing as what has come during the past 25 years, perhaps even more so.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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