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A Brief History of Computer Graphics


Computer Graphic is the discipline of producing picture or images using a computer include modeling - creation, manipulation, and storage of geometric objects and rendering – converting a scene to an image, or the process of transformations, rasterization, shading, illumination, and animation of the image.  

Computer Graphics has been widely used, such as graphics presentation, paint systems, computer-aided design (CAD), image processing, simulation & virtual reality, and entertainment.  From the earliest text character images of a non-graphic mainframe computers to the latest photographic quality images of a high resolution personal computers, from vector displays to raster displays, from 2D input, to 3D input and beyond, computer graphics has gone through its short, rapid changing history. 

The history of Computer Graphics

In the 1950’s, output are via teletypes, lineprinter, and Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). Using dark and light characters, a picture can be reproduced.

  • 1950: Ben Laposky created the first graphic images, an Oscilloscope, generated by an electronic (analog) machine.  The image was produced by manipulating electronic beams and recording them onto high-speed film.
  • 1951: UNIVAC-I: the first general purpose commercial computer, crude hardcopy devices, and line printer pictures.
  • 1951: MIT – Whirlwind computer, the first to display real time video, and capable of displaying real time text and graphic on a large oscilloscope screen.


In the 1960’s, beginnings of modern interactive graphics, output are vector graphics and interactive graphics.  One of the worst problems was the cost and inaccessibility of machines.

  • 1960: William Fetter coins the computer graphics to describe new design methods.
  • 1961: Steve Russel --  Spacewars, first video/computer game
  • 1963:
    • Douglas Englebart – first mouse
    • Ivan Sutherland  – Sketchpad, interactive CG system, a man-machine graphical communication system, it features:
      • pop-up menus
      • constraint-based drawing
      • hierarchical modeling
      • utilized lightpen for interaction

He formulated the ideas of using primitives, lines polygons, arcs, etc. and constraints on them; He developed the dragging, rubberbanding and transforming algorithms; He introduced data structures for storing.  He is considered the founder of the computer graphics.

  • 1964: William Fetter -- first computer model of a human figure.
  • 1965: Jack Bresenham – line-drawing algorithm
  • 1968:
    • Tektronix – a special CRT, the direct-view storage tube, with keyboard and mouse, a simple computer interface for $15, 000, which made graphics affordable
    • Ivan Sutherland – first head-mounted display
  • 1969:
    • John Warnock – area subdivision algorithm, hidden-surface algorithms
    • Bell Labs – first framebuffer containing 3 bits per pixel


In the early 1970’s, output start using raster displays, graphics capability was still fairly chunky.

  • 1972: Nolan Kay Bushnell – Pong, video arcade game
  • 1973: John Whitney. Jr. and Gary Demos – “Westworld”, first film with computer graphics
  • 1974:
    • Edwin Catmuff –texture mapping and Z-buffer hidden-surface algorithm
    • James Blinn – curved surfaces, refinement of texture mapping
    • Phone Bui-Toung – specular highlighting
  • 1975:
    • Martin Newell – famous CG teapot, using Bezier patches
    • Benoit Mandelbrot – fractal/fractional dimension
  • 1976: James Blinn – environment mapping and bump mapping
  • 1977: Steve Wozniak --  Apple II, color graphics personal computer
  • 1979: Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle – MUD, a multi-user dungeon/Zork


In the 1980’s output are built-in raster graphics, bitmap image and pixel. Personal computers costs decrease drastically; trackball and mouse become the standard interactive devices.

  • 1982:
    • Steven Lisberger“Tron”, first Disney movie which makes extensive use of 3-D computer graphics
    • Tom Brighman – “Morphing”, first film sequence plays a female character which deforms and transforms herself into the shape of a lynx.
    • John Walkner and Dan Drake – AutoCAD
  • 1983: Jaron Lanier – “DataGlove”, a virtual reality film features a glove installed with switches and sensors to detect hand motion.
  • 1984: Wavefron tech. – Polhemus, first 3D graphics software
  • 1985:
    • Pixar Animation Studios – “Luxo Jr.”, 1989, “ Tin toy”
    • NES – Nintendo home game system
  • 1987: IBM – VGA, Video Graphics Array introduced
  • 1989: Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) – SVGA, Super VGA formed


In the 1990’s, since the introduction of VGA and SVGA, personal computer could easily display photo-realistic images and movies. 3D image renderings are become the main advances and it stimulated cinematic graphics applications.

  • 1990: Hanrahan and Lawson – Renderman
  • 1991: Disney and Pixar – “Beauty and the Beast”, CGI was widely used, Renderman systems provides fast, accurate and high quality digital computer effects.
  • 1992: Silicon Graphics – OpenGL specification
  • 1993:
    • University of Illinois -- Mosaic, first graphic Web browser
    • Steven Spielberg – “Jurassic Park” a successful CG fiction film.
  • 1995:
    • Buena Vista Pictures – “Toy Story”, first full-length, computer-generated, feature film
    • NVIDIA Corporation – GeForce 256, GeForce3(2001)
  • 2003: ID Software – Doom3 graphics engine



From games to virtual reality, to 3D active desktops, from unobtrusive immersive home environments, to scientific and business, computer graphics technology has touched almost every concern of our life. The trends are still on and the question is what others are?

Last modified: 2004 December 5