A Detailed History of Mechanical CAD

6 Aug, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

A new book offers a unique perspective of the evolution of engineering design.

Let's face it, the CAD industry has not only spawned innovation, but also has endured some tumultuous times throughout the course of its history, which now spans a little more than a half-century. Over the years, myriad technologies have emerged, evolved, proliferated, disappeared, or have been just plain forgotten. The various CAD technologies represent the gamut of promises, possibilities, and problems (the latter primarily related to legacy data from so many different CAD systems; in other words, interoperability — still a huge issue today).

Over the years, a few authors, mainly academicians or former company executives, have attempted to document segments of CAD history, either by a range of years or a specific company's contributions. However, as far as I know there was never a comprehensive history of the mechanical CAD industry, including its academic roots. That is, until now.

A new book titled The Engineering Design Revolution: The People, Companies, and Computer Systems That Changed Forever the Practice of Engineering, by Dave Weisberg, was recently released. Most of you who have followed the CAD industry to any degree are probably familiar with Dave. He is first and foremost an engineer (he has BS and MS degrees in civil engineering from MIT), and that adds significant credibility to a book of this nature. I've personally known Dave for almost 20 years, and I know that by the time he received his graduate degree, he had a much greater desire to work in the emerging computer industry than to practice civil engineering.

Over the years he did stints at a number of CAD companies in different roles that included planning, marketing, sales, implementation, and software development management positions. His career took a significant change in direction in the early 1990s when he formed Technology Automation Services and began publishing Engineering Automation Report. For the next several years he covered the CAD industry, interviewing many of the people mentioned in his book. In 1994, he acquired the Anderson Report on Computer Graphics, started by Ken Anderson in 1978, and in 1997 he acquired the A-E-C Automation Newsletter, introduced by Ed Forrest in 1977. It was during the early stages of his publishing heyday that I met and worked with Dave as a contributing and lead editor.

Even back then he talked about writing a book on the history of the CAD industry from his unique perspective. It was only after he got into it that he fully appreciated the magnitude of the undertaking, and The Engineering Design Revolution is the result of that tremendous effort. Simply put, the book is Dave's attempt to document how the computer changed the practice of engineering. He wisely chose to do it by looking at the companies and individuals who created this new technology through the eyes of someone who was there in the thick of it. This unique and personal perspective is what makes the book such an interesting read, because this type of material could otherwise get dull quickly.

The Beginnings of the CAD Industry
What began as an academic exercise and evolved into the CAD industry is now a multibillion-dollar business with millions of engineers, designers, architects, and drafters using these computer-aided systems. The technology has radically changed how several professions, including mechanical design, engineering, and manufacturing, are practiced. However, CAD's early years hardly guaranteed the success that we see and enjoy today. Early computers were too slow, the software was plagued with bugs and functional shortcomings, and management didn't want to totally change corporate cultures. Eventually, the industry solved both the technical and management issues, and today few would want to tackle any complex design project without CAD software and hardware technology.

This book tells how CAD was created by a few academics with great foresight, and then became an industry that produces the tools used to design virtually everything in today's world. The work of developing CAD technology was built on the experience of those who went before, making it largely a collaborative process from the beginning.

In general, the book is broken up into chapters covering CAD's background and history, specifics on several major CAD companies (some still around, some gone), and chapters on smaller CAD and CAE companies. It also includes an excellent bibliography for those who want to explore more information. Keep in mind that the book primarily covers mechanical CAD evolution through U.S. companies (Dassault Systemes being the notable exception).

This endeavor was truly a labor of love, because amazingly, the e-book is free, and you can download a compressed ZIP file that contains all the chapters in PDF. Weisberg asks for a donation to the Cancer League of Colorado Foundation (via PayPal). Give what you can, because it's a good read for a good cause coming from a good guy.

As I said earlier, I have known Dave Weisberg for a number of years as a friend, colleague, and confidant. I am pleased that his efforts to write The Engineering Design Revolution have finally been realized. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of the details offered in this important volume, which should also be of great interest to our readers, regardless of whether you're new to the industry or a seasoned veteran. I highly recommend this book!

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