Happy Birthday to Computer Scientist Ivan Sutherland!

Dr. Ivan Sutherland doesn’t register at the same level of public fame as Grace Hopper or Bill Gates, yet his accomplishments in computer graphics advanced the field of Computer Science tremendously. He is most notoriously known for creating Sketchpad in 1963, a computer software that let the user make technical drawing digitally on a screen with a pen-like input device.

If education counts for anything, his impressive stack of degrees from the country’s top universities should be a good enough clue that this guy would accomplish great things. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University, a master’s degree at the California Institute of Technology, followed by a doctorate from MIT.

It was at MIT that Sutherland created Sketchpad. What essentially sounds like a simple drawing program on a touchscreen–mundane to our modern technology–was in fact a giant leap in computer history. Sketchpad was the first version of computer-aided drafting software, which is important feat in itself, but also the beginning of a whole new way to think about computers. Not just as fast calculators, but as tools that can act as an extension of the user. It was the start of modern computer graphics, graphical user interfaces, and human-computer interaction. Remember this was not in the 80s, not even the 70s. This happened in the early 1960s! The video at the beginning of the post is an interview with a reporter being introduced to Sketchpad at MIT in 1964. It definitively makes you appreciate how far we’ve come and how groundbreaking Sketchpad was.

Dr. Sutherland followed this early success with an equally impressive career. He worked at DARPA, created a couple of successful companies, created the first augmented/virtual reality head-mounted display (interestingly called The Sword of Damocles), taught at three universities (Harvard, University of Utah, and CalTech), served as vice-president at Sun Microsystems, and is now doing research at Portland State University. And I probably forgot a few things in there!

Perhaps one of my favorite quotes ever, when asked, “How could you possibly have done the first interactive graphics program, the first non-procedural programming language, the first object oriented software system, all in one year?” Sutherland replied: “Well, I didn’t know it was hard.” How’s that for a winning mindset!

Please join me today in wishing Dr. Sutherland a happy 75th birthday!

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Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.