Learning CAD: The Good Old Days

17 Jan, 2012 By: Bill Fane

If you think AutoCAD training is challenging now, you might be surprised to know that it was once a lot worse.

My grandmother used to say, "Anyone who longs for the good old days never lived back then."

My first exposure to AutoCAD, or any CAD program for that matter, was version 2.17(g) in September 1985. In those days, AutoCAD updates came out every few weeks. One such update consisted of a snail-mail letter with instructions on how to use a DOS program called DeBug to patch ACAD.EXE yourself.

Before you worried about education, you first had to get things running. For example, connecting a peripheral such as a plotter wasn't "plug and play," but instead followed a sequence something like this:

  1. Read through the computer and hardware manuals to determine what was a "Data Source" and what was a "Data Terminal." Just to confuse the issue, computers and plotters were usually both Data Terminals. 
  2. Try to figure out if the equipment used hardware or software handshaking.
  3. Find the RS-232 ports for both pieces of equipment and decide what combination of male and female plugs you needed, then go buy them and a length of cable.
  4. Find the pinout diagrams for the ports on each item and try to decide if they showed the front or the back of the socket.
  5. Solder the plugs onto the cable.
  6. Plug.
  7. Pray.
  8. Repeat steps 1–7 as necessary until things work.
  9. Repeat steps 1–8 as necessary for a digitizer tablet or mouse.

Okay, now you have your computer, mouse or digitizer, and plotter all operational, so it's time to start working through the tutorials in the manual. Uh, what tutorials? The manual consisted of a description of each command with all its options neatly laid out in alphabetical order, but no tutorials or even suggested practices.

In that case, let’s go back to the dealer — but that term didn't mean much. In those days, if you bought three copies you got a discount and you were allowed to sell two of them, so you officially became a dealer. On average, every third user was a dealer. Hmm, not much training available here.

Time to sign up for a school training session. Uh, what training session? Even a city the size of Vancouver, British Columbia, didn’t have night school or extension department classes yet. We finally worked out a self-help system. We only had one AutoCAD station for five of us, so each of us would get it for an hour a day to experiment and to fiddle while the rest of us continued our paper-and-pencil work. At the end of the day we would get together and exchange thoughts on what we had discovered.

I took the install disks home and installed a "bootleg" copy on my home machine. In those days, serial number 000-00000 was a legitimate serial number that would activate any copy. I spent many evenings figuring out AutoCAD instead of watching TV.

A major breakthrough occurred several months later when I discovered VAUS, the Vancouver AutoCAD Users Society (now the oldest AutoCAD user group in the world). It had been founded a couple of years earlier by Lionel Johnson. I once claimed in an article that Johnson owned AutoCAD serial number 7, but I was immediately corrected by Ralph Grabowski — who pointed out it was actually serial number 4.

Anyway, VAUS turned out to be a very useful self-help group, with an average meeting attendance of about 80. It also had a monthly newsletter that was mailed to several thousand members all over the world. That newsletter was much coveted because of all the tips, tricks, and basic principles it contained.

Running VAUS and the newsletter became so time-consuming that Johnson quit his day job and split the newsletter off into a commercial print publication. The name of the original newsletter, and of that later publication, was CADalyst. Hey, that sounds familiar! ("Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?") Johnson claimed it was the least obnoxious of the many names that were considered.

At one of my first VAUS meetings, I gave a talk on drawing scale — that is, how we should always draw full size, how dimensions and text heights need to be scaled accordingly so that they plot correctly, and how to save the drawing scale in the drawing so it could be accessed by the new-fangled LISP programming that had just been introduced. Johnson came up to me afterward and offered to pay me a small amount in exchange for including my handout in the next issue of CADalyst. That is how I became a "journalist."

Incidentally, VAUS is still active and meets the first Wednesday of each month.

Yes, CAD education has changed considerably since the "good old days." We now have interactive online training, Autodesk University, CAD Camps, training labs run by dealers, and a veritable cornucopia of night school and extension department classes.

What, then, of the future of these forms of CAD learning? I predict that they are going to shift significantly from basic beginner instruction to programs that address specialty and niche-market user needs. CAD instruction is becoming increasingly common in high schools and technical colleges, giving many future CAD professionals a big head start in understanding the basics. One thing that probably won’t change, however, is the difficulty encountered when trying to convince management and accounting that you need money for training.

Add comment

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!