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Vol.32 No.4 November 1998

CGW Founder Shares His Experiences

Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.

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One of the intentions of this column is to let you share the experiences of some of the computer graphics Pioneers. This month, we are most fortunate to present the following column from a friend — and one of our industry’s “movers and shakers” — Randy Stickrod, whom many of you will recognize from his days at Computer Graphics World magazine (CGW). Enjoy!

— Carl Machover

Computer Graphics — A Short Personal Memoir

Randall Stickrod

In 1967, with a year of graduate study in physics behind me, I was recruited by Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles to work as an engineer, jumping at the chance to make real money for the first time in my life. I worked mostly on spy satellites, a so-called “black” or covert program. During the course of that work I saw my first computer graphics. As I recall, this consisted of orbital mission planning simulations on an obscenely expensive system which I believe was from IBM — a predecessor to the 2250?

I went back to the University of Oregon in late 1969 hoping to finish my Ph.D. but bailed out in 1971 with an M.S. and took a job with a small research institute in Eugene. We had a few early computer wizards there, and several low serial number PDP-11s as well as a workhorse PDP-9 (remember this one, anybody — an 18-bit machine !?). With utterly no employment available in physics, I took refuge in computers and learned how to program these machines in Fortran, Assembler and PL-1. I quickly decided that, compared to physics, computing was stupid and dull for the most part — with the exception of this nifty new area called computer graphics. We had a small display, a Tektronix 611 storage scope, that I wrote some early graphics programs for. Having Tektronix just up the road was an encouraging coincidence as well.

In 1973 I was recruited to run a large computer center that served 30 or so government agencies and was an IBM showcase (the first third-generation computer installation in local government). There were many obvious potential applications of computer graphics, so I wrote a grant proposal that was funded to develop a joint geographic information system for all of Lane County, an area the size of Connecticut. We called it the Map Model System and it sprung into life with phenomenal success. In less than a year, virtually every government agency that had an interest in Lane County was using the system, and I was shuttling back and forth to Tektronix to consult with the product engineering guys, which led to their creation of a government marketing group. We bought some of the first 4010s and a few 4051s (arguably the first “intelligent” graphics terminal) but the limitations of small screen size and storage display technology were frustrating.

Based largely on our project success (and both Tektronix and IBM shipping me all over the world to talk about what we were doing), Tek came up with the 4081, a prototype of what would later become the common graphics workstation. But it was slightly out of phase with what was possible and cost-effective back then, and never really saw the light of day as a product. Too bad.

Around 1975 I was contacted by Joel Orr who had been hired by the City of Nashville to run their LAMP project, which had similar objectives as the Map Model System. We exchanged some info and then I never heard any more about the LAMP project.

In late 1975, I (rather impulsively) left my position and decided to become a consultant, leveraging the widely publicized successes of the Lane County projects. My first client was the French federal government, which was interested in aggressively automating their property tax system nationwide. Over the next few years I had many projects with Tektronix (and turned down many job opportunities with them) and developed an almost familial relationship with the company. I had little projects all over the place, particularly with an engineering firm in San Francisco and Boise State University in Idaho, both of which were long-term engagements for me. But I also did work with Harvard University (whose Graphics Lab was doing pioneering work), Polaroid, 3M Corporation and Battelle Research.

In 1976 I was contacted once more by Joel Orr who was now positioning himself as a consultant, and had started a newsletter on computer graphics. He organized one of the first conferences on graphics in December 1976 in Milwaukee and invited me to come and speak, which I did, though I was dreadfully ill at the time. It was there that I first met Carl Machover and what seemed like everyone who was involved in computer graphics at the time (all 30 or 40 of them!).

Randall Stickrod
1234 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

Tel: +1-415-474-0928

Carl Machover is President of Machover Associates Corporation, a consultancy providing services to computer graphics users, suppliers and investors. He has been interested and involved in the field of CG for many years, written numerous articles and conducted a number of seminars. Machover is Editor of the CAD/CAM Handbook (McGraw Hill, 1996) and serves on the editorial board of several publications.

Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.
152A Longview Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605

Tel: +1-914-949-3777
Fax: +1-914-949-3851

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

1976 was a pivotal year in the development of raster technology, which really made computer graphics possible on a wide scale thanks to the shrinking cost of RAM.

In early 1978, by a fluke of my business life, I had taken over a small magazine publishing firm that was producing a chronically insolvent city magazine in Eugene. I had learned that Orr was struggling with his newsletter (he had managed to get out five issues in a year and a half). So one day I asked my 19 year old art director to come up with a design for a computer graphics magazine and I asked Orr to collaborate with me. He readily agreed. I asked him to be editor and I would be publisher/editor. He had a list of 220 subscribers who had prepaid but had not been fulfilled, so I used those to jump-start the first issue. Then I went on the road and got customer lists from the handful of graphics companies to build circulation from. And most of these became the magazine’s first advertisers as well.

At the time I was recently divorced and had no money at all. During the early period of the magazine I had to continue with consulting jobs, then use the proceeds to pay the printer, ship the magazine, cover payroll, etc. It was a grim and mean period.

The magazine was initially called Computer Graphics. At the time, SIGGRAPH was packaging its annual proceedings under the same name but were not bothering with copyright, and neither Orr nor I were terribly sophisticated about publishing practices. But the good folk at SIGGRAPH weren’t happy about the name conflict, so I flew to New York at my own expense and met with the SIGGRAPH people at the ACM offices. I agreed to change the name to Computer Graphics World and support the aims and policies of SIGGRAPH. By this time (after the second issue) Orr and I had parted company. The distance, stress of poverty and differences of opinion sent us in separate directions.

Publishing CGW was a horrendous struggle. I had to do almost everything myself for the first year or two. By early 1979 I moved to San Francisco as a commitment to the business, so I could be close to the emerging community of graphics technology providers. And once I settled in there, things began to take off. Being able to have lunch on short notice with, say, the president of Ramtek or Versatec, or an executive at Hewlett Packard, was a godsend to the business and to my involvement with the expanding industry.

By late 1981 the population of computer graphics companies had risen from a few dozen (in 1978) to well over 100. CGW was booming and I was becoming well known in the industry and being asked to speak at — or host — the myriad of gatherings that were taking place around computer graphics. I enjoyed speaking and pontificating on the future of graphics and what I thought were the principal challenges facing the industry. But I was always a little embarrassed at being in the spotlight and never did get comfortable with self-promotion.

By late 1981 I had several large publishing companies courting me, and I eventually chose to sell to PennWell Publishing. I stayed another four years after the deal closed, and grew the magazine into a substantial business. The 1980s were the glory years of computer graphics, with the emergence of glamour companies such as Silicon Graphics and Pixar, and significant advances in the technologies coming almost every week (or so it seemed). Alvy Ray Smith of Pixar once told me that in this period they suffered from the “chip of the week” syndrome, where it was hard to get a product out because every week an engineer would come to him frantically telling him about some new chip that had just been announced that was better than what they had in their forthcoming product, and please, couldn’t they withhold the product until the new chip was incorporated?

By the end of the ‘80s graphics had become just what people like Carl Machover and I had been proclaiming in speeches for many years — a technology so ubiquitous as to become almost mundane. I remember speaking before a Congressional Committee in 1981 and telling them that soon, “wherever you find computing, you will find computer graphics.” And now we live in a world in which computing is ubiquitous — and a central reason for the success of computers is that computer graphics made it compelling, opening up applications that would not have existed without graphics. We must also mention the fact that the emergence of the graphical user interface made computers accessible to everyone.