The evolution of computer graphics is something that has been well documented over the years, and it’s a topic that we always enjoy revisiting with our retrocomputing readers. To wit, [Stephen A. Edwards] has put together an impressively detailed presentation that looks back at the computer graphics technology of the 1960s and 70s.
The video, which was presented during VCF East 2021, goes to great lengths in demystifying some of the core concepts of early computer graphics. There’s a lot to unpack here, but naturally, this retrospective first introduces the cathode-ray tube (CRT) display as the ubiquitous technology that supported computer graphics during this time period and beyond. Building from this, the presentation goes on to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of DEC’s PDP-1 minicomputer, and how its striking and surprisingly capable CRT display was the perfect choice for playing Spacewar!
As is made clear in the presentation, the 1960s featured some truly bizarre concepts in regards to cutting edge computer graphics, such as Control Data Corporation’s 6600 mainframe and accompanying vector-based dual-CRT video terminal, which wouldn’t look out of place on the Death Star. Equally strange at the time was IBM’s 2260 video data terminal, which used a ‘sonic delay line’ as a type of rudimentary video memory, using nothing but coiled wire, transducers and sound itself to store character information following a screen refresh.
These types of hacks were later replaced by solid state counterparts during the microcomputer era. The video concludes with a look back at the ‘1977 trinity’ of microcomputers, namely the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80. Each of these microcomputers handled graphics in a slightly different way, and it’s in stark contrast to today’s largely homogenised computer graphics landscape.
There’s a lot more to this great retrospective, so make sure to check out the video below. When you’re finished watching, make sure to check out our other coverage of VCF 2021, including some great examples of computer preservation and TTL-based retrocomputing.