A Quarter Century of Cadalyst (Cadalyst's 25th Anniversary Celebration, Part 1 of 5)

31 May, 2008 By: David Cohn

Cadalyst's former senior editor reflects on the magazine's inception and ongoing growth.

Once upon a time, 16 people joined forces to form a company that developed computer software for the burgeoning personal computer field. When they first began, they had little idea of what their software might become or how personal computers would evolve. This was January 1982, after all. Computers were still relatively scarce, and they ran a variety of operating systems, including CP/M, UNIX, and IBM 8086 DOS.

The programmers pooled their money, coming up with $59,030. They cobbled together several potential products, including an office automation system, a screen editor, and a computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting system. They proposed various names for their company, including Desktop Solutions, Target Software, Insight Solutions, and RHT (RHT stood for Red Hot Techies). They spent $1,200 for a booth at the West Coast Computer Faire, and in March 1982, they showed several of their wares, including a CAD program (originally called INTERACT but then renamed MicroCAD). In August 1982, they began shipping an 8080 version of MicroCAD for $1,000. Three months later, at the 1982 COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, Autodesk — the name they finally settled on — unveiled AutoCAD-80, and it was an obvious hit.

Several weeks later, AutoCAD v1 began shipping. In January 1983, the first IBM PC version of AutoCAD was released. By the end of the year, nearly 1,000 copies of AutoCAD had been sold. The company had more than $1 million in sales. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Another Kind of History

In a little corner of southeastern British Columbia, Canada, another sort of history was also beginning. In these early days, it was quite easy for someone to become an AutoCAD dealer — simply buy two copies, one to demonstrate and one to sell. Lionel Johnston (a contract programmer between jobs) and Eric Clough (a landscape architect, solar house designer, and southern Californian "pilgrim from the Nixon years") saw a product ad in the back of Byte magazine and contacted Autodesk. They bought three copies — one for each of them and one to sell — and became partners in CADventures Computers. Their aim: to sell micro-based CAD systems to design professionals. But they were in Nelson, a small town later made a bit more famous as the setting for the Steve Martin movie Roxanne. It wasn't the best place to be selling CAD software.

The very first issue of CADalyst, dated January 1984. The first issue was published on a single sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper and folded in half.
The very first issue of CADalyst, dated January 1984. The first issue was published on a single sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper and folded in half.

"We had one of the first Canadian dealerships," said Johnston. "We sold three systems." One day, while sitting in Clough's tiny house in Winlaw, British Columbia, an even smaller town 40 miles north of Nelson, Johnston said, "You know, there should be a newsletter about this thing." And Clough replied, "Why don't you do it?"

In January 1984, the two men ran off copies of a flyer (half on green and half on mauve paper) that Autodesk mailed to registered users. They mailed "probably 500 copies," said Johnston, "but it could have been 1,000."

Johnston introduced his newsletter as the founding piece of a user group. "We are happy to announce the forming of an AutoCAD user group for the mutual benefit of everyone involved with this computer-aided design and drafting software. After inquiring at Autodesk for a contact address for the user group and finding it didn't quite exist yet, a few of us have decided to see what we could do." He had Autodesk's active participation, but he envisioned the group as being "an independent organization without financial ties to the company whose customers we all are."

Unlike all of the name changes involved in the formation of Autodesk and its software, the name of Johnston's magazine stuck from the very start:

We've chosen CADalyst as the least preposterous of the names we came up with. I will never be a member of a group called 'AUG' nor edit a newsletter called AUGNews, so you're stuck with the bad pun. It's not the last silliness you'll have to read from this keyboard.

The original plan was to publish "this little newsletter" every two months. The newsletter would include contact information for members, maintain a wish list for software improvements, pose technical questions, circulate rumors and gossip, provide a letter-to-the-editor column for users to sound off, run classified ads, accept advertising, offer tips about hardware and software, provide libraries of drawing symbols, and so on. He concluded that first mailing by saying:

CADalyst, Volume 3, Number 5 (November/December 1986) was the last issue with the table of contents printed on the cover. If you look carefully, King Kong is snacking on the table of contents.
CADalyst, Volume 3, Number 5 (November/December 1986) was the last issue with the table of contents printed on the cover. If you look carefully, King Kong is snacking on the table of contents.

Well, I'm at my page limit, and my wee daughter is tugging at my elbow. For more of this deathless prose on your doormat, take 5 minutes to fill in the form below and send it in. When we count your replies up here in our mountain retreat in British Columbia, we'll estimate our costs and decide how to ask you for a moderate subscription and membership. It'll be maybe $10 per year. Let us know your wishes — this is your newsletter.

In September 1990, CADalyst launched the Images Awards, later dubbed the Caddies by Joel Orr after he saw the trophy.
In September 1990, CADalyst launched the Images Awards, later dubbed the Caddies by Joel Orr after he saw the trophy.

Issue Number 2, published in April 1984, was an actual newsletter. Although still printed on 8.5" x 11" paper folded in half, it was 16 pages in length and contained some truly useful information, including the first published AutoCAD wish list and several tips published under the heading "Hot Tip Harry." Johnston reported, "As this issue goes to press, almost 200 of you have expressed your interest in CADalyst." The annual subscription price was set at $25.

A few months later, in the summer of 1984, Johnston and his wife, Jane, moved to Vancouver, where Jane had taken a new teaching position. Johnston stopped being a dealer and began running his fledgling magazine full time. He traveled to Colorado to attend the First Annual Conference of Microcomputers in CAD (organized by Terry Wohlers at Colorado State University) and then spent a month in Mill Valley, California, "getting to know and be known by Autodesk better." It was clear that CADalyst had evolved. It would no longer be a user group newsletter but rather an independent publication for AutoCAD users.

The Growing Years

Soon after, Johnston hired several people to help run the business. The first employee was Martha Holzchuher, who remained with CAD- alyst until it was sold in 1991. In the spring of 1985, Johnston hired Ralph Grabowski, a professional engineer and consultant, as technical editor. By now, the newsletter had become a real magazine, first changing shape to a 8.5" x 11" saddle-stitched black-and-white publication and then, with Volume 2, Number 3 (June/September 1985), to a glossy magazine with some pages in color.

CADalyst continued to print its table of contents on the cover (like a nineteenth-century magazine; Johnston admits to not being much of a designer) until the end of 1986. The November/December 1986 issue included a story about how AutoCAD was used to design the King Kong attraction at Universal Studios, and if you look closely, you'll see that the giant ape on the cover is eating the table of contents.

Other early issues included stories about using AutoCAD to chart the wreckage of the HMS Pandora, design America's Cup yachts, and create staging for Madonna's 1986 "Virgin" tour. "The thing I loved," said Johnston, "was the opportunity to show to all the various professions how some other professions were using it."

While Johnston's aim had been to create an international user group, other local AutoCAD user groups were springing up all around the world. I helped form such a group in Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1985 and subsequently began publishing its user group newsletter. That newsletter also grew, and rather than see it compete with CAD- alyst, in the summer of 1987 Johnston offered me a job. I moved to Vancouver, and in December 1987 became the magazine's senior editor. In that issue, Johnston wrote, "After several months of struggle with Canadian bureaucracy, CADalyst has succeeded in getting David Cohn across the 49th Parallel without resorting to making him swim, climb mountains, or hide in American computer export cartons. David has joined us as senior editor (he gets a desk by the window) and takes over much of the responsibility for driving the operations of our editorial department." By the time I joined the staff, CADalyst had nearly a dozen employees.

After the first major redesign of the magazine, reviews written by either Grabowski or Cohn included cartoons along with Siskel and Ebert–like thumbs-up and thumbs-down comments.
After the first major redesign of the magazine, reviews written by either Grabowski or Cohn included cartoons along with Siskel and Ebert–like thumbs-up and thumbs-down comments.

My Memphis newsletter wasn't the only competition. Cadence, another AutoCAD magazine, published its first issue in 1986. Started by people with actual publishing experience, it sprang to life as a full-color glossy magazine (actually, the first article for which I was ever paid appeared in Cadence, not CADalyst). A lawsuit between CADalyst and Cadence raged for several years before being settled, and the editor of Cadence even threatened to sue me at one point for claiming that the Memphis newsletter was the "third-largest AutoCAD publication." But Cadence is no more — after publishing 210 issues, it was acquired by CADalyst in December 2003.

Over the years, CADalyst has published a lot of hardware and software reviews. My colleagues and I began the practice of rating products, including awarding the best products with CADalyst's Highly Recommended rating. At one time, after the first major redesign of the magazine, reviews written by either Grabowski or me included talking-head cartoons along with thumbs-up/thumbs-down comments reminiscent of Siskel and Ebert. We had a strict policy: If a company sent us a product to review, good or bad we would write about it. Although most products received at least passing grades, we panned a few, and several products were pulled from sale rather than have scathing reviews appear in the pages of CADalyst.

Of course, with CADalyst published monthly, a lot more articles written by outside writers appeared. Bill Fane wrote the first installment of his long-running "Learning Curve" column in February 1987, and he continues to write it today.

The most popular feature by far was the tips and tricks column, and the character of Hot Tip Harry would become a major fixture in the pages of CADalyst (although not before similar columns appeared under the bylines of Warm Tip Willy, Scorch Tip Sarah, Burning Tip Bertha, Tepid Tip Timothy, and others). AutoCAD users had discovered this quirky little Canadian magazine and couldn't wait to share their AutoCAD knowledge with others. The tips in CADalyst helped early users customize AutoCAD, undoubtedly helping spur Autodesk's growth. Each month's collection of tips was preceded by a new tale about Harry's latest exploits, and in time, I found myself and members of my family included in these chronicles. My daughter's Lego blocks became tools with which Harry developed some of the most intricate AutoLISP code ever conceived. My son's radio-controlled toy truck was converted into a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. Nothing was sacred. All was in fun. And readers hung on every word.

There were also a number of funny (and obviously fictitious) April Fools Day articles, as well as a Cattle-Lust T-shirt produced as a result of a real phone call inquiring about this "cattle breeders magazine" published in Vancouver, of all places. And there were some mistakes, such as printing January 1991 on the spine of the February 1991 issue.

As Autodesk began to widen its horizons beyond basic CAD, CAD- alyst followed. In December 1989, CADalyst published an issue devoted almost entirely to cyberspace. The issue included a white paper by Autodesk president John Walker and an interview with William Gibson, author of Neuromancer (the book in which the term cyberspace first appeared). In April 1990, CADalyst published a feature about software piracy, and in September 1990, shortly after Autodesk launched its first computer animation software, CADalyst launched the Image Awards. Later dubbed the Caddies by Dr. Joel Orr after he saw the beautiful cast bronze trophy design by contributing editor Evan Yares, judges for the contest included John Lasseter of Pixar and John Dvorak of PC Magazine. In April 1991, CADalyst published a second issue focused on virtual reality, including an original short story by William Gibson.

A Changing World

Grabowski left the magazine in March 1991. Several months later, Johnston sold CADalyst to Aster Publishing for $2.2 million. Johnston told me that the magazine had just gotten too big. He remembers his wife telling him, "You're not having fun anymore." He gave more than $500,000 to the staff, which numbered 16 full- or part-time employees in Vancouver plus four regional advertising sales reps. Johnston also set up the Melusine Foundation, formed the Knife Edge Opera Company, and produced "The World is Sharp as a Knife." (Melusine, a feminine spirit of fresh waters from European legends and folklore, was his mum's pen name as a poet and also the name he christened his MacGregor sailboat, a boat designed using AutoCAD, as chronicled in an article I wrote for CADalyst.)

I was the only member of the Vancouver staff to remain with CADalyst after the sale, though I chose to move just across the border to Bellingham, Washington, a city of 80,000 approximately halfway between Vancouver and Seattle. I spent the next several years commuting once a month to the magazine's editorial offices in Eugene, Oregon.

Once in Eugene, the staff was reformed, with me as senior editor, Gail Elber as senior associate editor, and Sandy Lurins as associate editor. Staffing changed a bit over the next few years. Lurins became editor. Art Liddle was hired as technical editor. Lara Sheridan became associate editor. I stayed with the magazine until mid-1996, holding the position of senior editor for nearly 10 years. Lurins became editor-in-chief, Sara Ferris senior editor, and Sheridan managing editor. Then Lurins left to join Autodesk and Gene Smart took over as editor-in-chief. In 2003, Ferris became editor-in-chief. Lisa McAdam joined the staff as managing editor in 2006. Amy Stankiewicz assumed the editorship in 2007.

Aster Publishing was sold to Advanstar Communications in 1993, and even more changes ensued, including Questex Media Group's purchase of the magazine in mid-2005. By my count, the magazine has been redesigned at least 10 times. But through it all, CADalyst has evolved while remaining true to most of the ideals that Johnston envisioned 25 years ago in that little town in British Columbia.

Of course, not everything Johnston imagined has panned out exactly as he thought. When he first started CADalyst, he also proposed starting an electronic bulletin board service (BBS) for AutoCAD users as an additional communication vehicle. That BBS never materialized. "I never knew how to do something like that, and nobody ever offered," he said.

Several other BBSs carried AutoCAD information, but the real genesis of what became NAAUG (North American AutoCAD User Group), the precursor of what is today known as AUGI (Autodesk User Group International), sprang from the AutoCAD Forum on CompuServe, which didn't come into being until May 1986. I asked Johnston what he thought about the name. "I'm not a member. Do they have as their mascot an AUGI doggie?" to which I had to explain how AUGI now runs its Top DAUG contest at each CAD Camp event.

Today, Johnston still lives in the same house in Vancouver, where I first visited him in the summer of 1987. His current venture is a startup company called WilliamOnWeb (, which is creating production software for live theatre. It's based on some work he began while living in Nelson.

CADalyst (now named Cadalyst) has published 323 issues in the nearly 25 years since Johnston first mailed that small green or mauve flyer, and I own a copy of every one. You hold in your hands Issue Number 324. Now that's history.

About the Author: David Cohn

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