A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation

Section 2:
The emergence of computer graphics technology

The evolution of the digital computer continued with the Whirlwind computer. Development of the Whirlwind began in 1945 under the leadership of Jay Forrester at MIT, as part of the Navy's Airplane Stability and Control Analyzer (ASCA) project. The system was proposed in order to provide a "programmable" flight simulation environment and was first demonstrated in 1951. This was not the first digital computer, but it was the first capable of displaying real time text and graphics on a large oscilloscope screen.

Whirlwind received positional data related to an aircraft from a radar station in Massachusetts. The Whirlwind programmers had created a series of data points, displayed on the screen, that represented the eastern coast of Massachusetts, and when data was received from radar, a symbol representing the aircraft was superimposed over the geographic drawing on the screen of a CRT. Robert Everett (who later became CEO of Mitre Corporation) designed an input device, which was called a light gun or light pen, to give the operators a way of requesting identification information about the aircraft. When the light gun was pointed at the symbol for the plane on the screen, an event was sent to Whirlwind, which then sent text about the plane's identification, speed and direction to also be displayed on the screen (see photo of military officer using the light pen on a SAGE computer in photo below right).

As a result of performance and expense, Forrester opted not to use new mercury delay line memory or electrostatic storage tubes. Instead he investigated a magnetic ceramic called Deltamax, which could be subjected to magnetic pulses which would result in a change of state that could remain indefinitely. Called core memory, each component was a donut shaped metal that had two electrical wires strung through it. Neither was strong enough in power to change the state of the magnetism, but together they were. Thus it was a randomly addressable storage and access medium. (See Note 1)


The Whirlwind project was very expensive and made up the bulk of the Office of Naval Research budget. As a result, it became the target of congressional budget cutters, who threatened to reduce the allocation from $1.15M to $250K in 1951. Through intense lobbying by MIT, the Whirlwind computer was ultimately adopted by the U.S. Air Force for use in its new SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system, which became operational in 1958 with more advanced display capabilities.



The Deltamax core was replaced by faster ferrite core memory in 1953. RCA applied for the contract to manufacture SAGE but it ultimately was awarded to IBM, who placed 2 Whirlwind computers in each of the 23 Air Force SAGE centers. Due to the launch of Sputnik, the Air Force became less concerned about long range bombers, and more concerned about intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it was phased out. The last of the Whirlwind-based SAGE computers was shut down in 1983, giving the Whirlwind a record for practical operational longevity among digital computers.

Besides the innovations related to computing hardware and software technology, the Whirlwind and SAGE projects helped to open the door to the computer graphics discipline by providing the CRT as a viable display and interaction interface, and introduced the light pen as an important input device.



On Guard! - 1956

This is the first half of the movie "On Guard!" produced by IBM, which is about the SAGE project. The second half covers the process of making computers flight worthy. To view the entire movie go to the SAGE history site at



Click on the images below to view a larger version (when available).

Stephen Dodd, Jay Forrester, Robert Everett, and Ramona Ferenz at Whirlwind I test control in the Barta Building at MIT

Core memory module of Whirlwind


Use of the light gun to interact with SAGE display


Vector display with geographical reference marks. A Whirlwind I computer generates and displays aircraft positions and auxiliary information on the console. (The direction and length of the vector indicate the aircraft’s direction and speed.) The operator uses a row of switches below the scope face to choose the information (e.g., vectors, identification, and track numbers) to be displayed. In this photo, geographical reference information has been superimposed on the display in response to a switch control.


The operation of the modern light pen (Time/Life Books)


Although the hardware developments of the 50s were extremely important to the CG discipline, there were also many innovations with respect to software that have allowed us to move rapidly forward to where we are today. For example, in the early development of the ENIAC, it was determined that the value of a digital computer was that you could "program" it to accomplish tasks, and then reprogram it to do something completely different.

Grace Hopper was a programmer on the Harvard Mark I and Mark II projects, and was hired by the Eckert and Mauchly Computer Company in 1949 to program the commercial version of the ENIAC. She experimented with the concept of software reusability, and published a paper in 1952 which laid out the general concepts of language translation and compilers. General computer languages were thus enabled, which created an environment that encouraged a significantly larger universe of computer users and applications. Hopper became a Commodore in the U.S. Navy in 1983 (which was converted to an Admiral in 1985), and died in 1992.


In 1954 John Backus of IBM proposed the FORTRAN programming language, which was built around the idea that you could express numerical formulae in the programming language and the compiler could convert it to the base level instructions of the machine on which it resided.

In 1960 John McCarthy of MIT published a landmark paper in the Communications of the ACM on recursive functions in programming, in which he introduced a new programming language called Lisp (for "List Processing"). The language contained a handful of simple operators and a functional notation, all built around a central simple data structure called a list for both code and data.

John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz invented the language BASIC in 1964 for use at Dartmouth College. This language had a widespread influence on the development of the industry, as they made it freely available to everyone who wanted to learn how to program computers. Many other languages have evolved and been used by programmers in the intervening years.


Grace Hopper






The aforementioned "larger universe of computer users" that took advantage of Hopper's early innovations included artists and designers, as well as mathematicians and computer engineers. Sometimes the difference between the different groups was blurry at best. In the early days of interacting with the new digital computer, sometimes investigations into issues such as complex math formulas or ergonomic design resulted in visual images produced on the computer that have remained in our discipline as contributions as art.

For example, Ben Laposky was a mathematician and artist from Iowa. In 1950, he created the first graphic images generated by an electronic (in this case, analog) machine.  His electronic oscilloscope imagery was produced by manipulated electronic beams displayed across the fluorescent face of an oscilloscope's cathode-ray tube and then recorded onto high-speed film. He called his oscillographic artworks 'oscillons' and 'electronic abstractions'. The mathematical curves that were created by this method were similar to the Lissajous mathematical wave form. (Another artist working with the same approach was Herbert Franke from Germany. More about Franke can be read in Section 9 of this document.)


To learn more about Lissajous patterns, go to




William Fetter was a graphic designer for Boeing Aircraft Co. and in 1960, was credited with coining the phrase "Computer Graphics" to describe what he was doing at Boeing at the time. (Fetter has said that the terms were actually given to him by Verne Hudson of the Wichita Division of Boeing.)

As Fetter stated in a 1978 interview, "There has been a long-standing need in certain computer graphics applications for human figure simulations, that as descriptions of the human body are both accurate and at the same time adaptable to different user environment." His early work at Boeing was focused on the development of such ergonomic descriptions. One of the most memorable and iconic images of the early history of computer graphics was such a human figure, often referred to as the "Boeing Man", but referred to by Fetter as the "First Man".

In 1970, Fetter left Seattle to work in Los Angeles, where he created one of the first in-perspective computer graphics TV commercials, a commercial for Norelco. He then moved to Carbondale, Illinois to become the Southern Illinois University Design Department Chairman, working with Buckminster Fuller. Fetter died in 2002.


Laposky's Oscillon 4.




Fetter's Boeing Man

Ad for Norelco by Fetter


John Whitney, Sr. was one of the earliest and most influential of the computer animation pioneers. He came at the problem from the background of film, working with his brother James Whitney on a series of experimental films in the 1940s and 1950s. His work in this area gave him the opportunity to collaborate with well known Hollywood filmmakers, including Saul Bass.

His earliest computer work used analog devices for controlling images and cameras. After the second world war, Whitney purchased surplus military equipment and modified it to be used in his art making. One such device was an analog mechanism used in military anti-aircraft controllers, the M-5 (and later the M-7). Whitney and his brother converted this device of war into an animation controller, and used it together with a mounted camera as an animation stand.


Interview with John Whitney


Unlike the digital computer which requires the processing of mathematical equations as its input, Whitney's analogue computer had to have its information ready before it was processed, meaning that a template had to be created. The "information" or image source was hi-con kodalith film negatives. When manipulated by the cam machine in a precise orbital motion, with an added movement differential, the result was animation. His insight was to harness the cam and ball integrators (formerly used as dedicated equation solvers for the gun fuse timing) as a source of differential motion.


After establishing his company Motion Graphics, Inc in 1960, he used his analog devices for the opening to the Hitchcock movie Vertigo in 1961. His company was focused on producing titles for film and television, and was also used in graphics for commercials. But Whitney was far more interested in the use of the technology as an art form, and began a series of collaborations in art making that has lasted for years.

Many of these early collaborations revolved around the advancement of the vector graphics device as a viable tool for making art. Whitney received funding from IBM to take a look at the use of IBM equipment in the design of motion. He worked with IBM programmers in the development of a language for extending the computer to the control of graphics devices. This resulted in one of his most famous animations, Permutations in 1968.

Whitney went on to a residency at MIT in the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Later he utilized the equipment of his son John, Jr., at Information International Inc. (III) and created his Matrix III animation; he joined with artist/programmer Larry Cuba to produce what is arguably his second most famous work, Arabesque.





Whitney joined the faculty at UCLA and supervised the work of a large number of animation students. Their collaboration, Digital Harmony (also the name of a book he wrote) was included in the 1984 Siggraph electronic theatre and reflected one of his primary philosophies, that harmony not only exists in music, but in visual imagery and life in general. Whitney passed away in 1995.


Digital Harmony

John and James Whitney

Scene from Variations

Whtney with the Arriflex camera aimed at the display



Animation World Magazine article by William Moritz on John Whitney, 1997






Continuing the development of the digital computer, the TX-2 (1959) computer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory was key in the evolution of interactive computer graphics. The Air Force paid Lincoln Laboratory to build TX-0, and later TX-2 as demonstrations that transistors, themselves relatively new, could be the basis of major computing systems. (Digital Equipment Company formed around the people that built these machines. DEC's PDP-1 and PDP-6 computers commercialized the TX-0 and TX-2 designs.)

TX-2 was a giant machine by the standards of the day, in part because it had 320 kilobytes of fast memory, about twice the capacity of the biggest commercial machines. It had magnetic tape storage, an on-line typewriter, the first Xerox printer, paper tape for program input, and most important for us in graphics, a nine inch CRT. The display, a lightpen, and a bank of switches were the interface on which the first interactive computer graphics system was based.

The purpose of the TX-2 was to investigate the use of Surface Barrier transistors for digital circuits. Prior to this computers were made of vacuum tubes, and it was thought that transistors would increase the reliability of computers.  Programs were written on paper tape, and fed into the TX-2 by the programmer.  In the early sixties, few computers ran "on line." Instead, most computers ran "batches" of jobs submitted by users to the computer operators who scheduled the jobs to keep the computer fully occupied. Turn around time for each job was usually an hour or more, and often overnight.

Wes Clark, the man who designed the TX-2, integrated a number of man-machine interfaces that were just waiting for the right person to show up to use them in order to make a computer that was "on-line". When selecting a PhD thesis topic, an MIT student named Ivan Sutherland looked at the simple cathode ray tube and light pen on the TX-2's console and thought one should be able to draw on the computer. Thus was born Sketchpad, and with it, interactive computer graphics.




Ivan Sutherland at the console of the TX-2







1. MIT licensed the technology for core memories to several computer companies – IBM, Univac, RCA, General Electric, Burroughs, NCR, Lockheed, and Digital Equipment Corporation, and memory suppliers, including Ampex, Fabri-TEk, Electronic Memory & Magnetics, Data Products, General Ceramics, and Ferroxcube. (National Academy Press)



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