Chm Blog Curatorial Insights

The Remarkable Ivan Sutherland

By David C. Brock | February 21, 2023

In His Own Words

Ivan Sutherland has blazed a truly unique trail through computing over the past six decades. Along the way, he helped to open new pathways for others to explore and dramatically extend: interactive computer graphics, virtual reality, 3D computer graphics, and asynchronous systems, to name but a few.

The Computer History Museum is delighted to make public its two-part oral history with Ivan Sutherland, one of the most influential figures in the story of computing to date. These new oral history interviews present a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Ivan Sutherland’s life in computing directly from the source, with his own reflections and interpretations and in his own words. The transcripts for these interviews can be viewed and downloaded here and here. And the full interview video can be viewed below.

The Museum is deeply grateful to Bob Sproull, a lifelong colleague of Sutherland and himself a major figure in computing, for his roles as instigator, interviewer, and editor for these oral histories, and for involving me, Marc Weber, and Jim Waldo in the effort. The Museum is also delighted to make these oral history interviews public during the 60th anniversary year of Ivan Sutherland’s breakthrough in interactive computer graphics, the program Sketchpad, for which he earned his PhD from MIT in 1963.

A Man of Many Parts

There is a phrase, far more popular in 17th and 18th century England than it is today, that recurs for me when thinking about Ivan Sutherland and the remarkable story of his life in computing: “A man of many parts.” The description was used for an individual who had made serious contributions to a domain, while also possessing multiple, and often diverse, talents and pursuits. The description fits Ivan Sutherland well, but I think it also misses something important: there is a commonality in Sutherland’s multiple contributions and accomplishments, a connective tissue or shared wellspring for his many parts.

To get at this wellspring, start with geometry. From his youth, Sutherland possessed an unusually keen spatial, geometric intuition. In his mind and at his hands, he experienced an immediacy in perceiving how things fit and worked together. Perspective drawing involves a set of techniques to represent a three-dimensional scene on the two-dimensional plane of a sheet of paper or a stretch of canvas. These renderings can proceed in different ways, determined by the number of vanishing points employed. Together the vanishing points define the viewpoint of the observer. One-point, two-point, and three-point perspectives are all very different, providing distinct ways to understand the represented scene.

Thomas Eakins, Untitled (Perspective study of boy viewing object), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966. Accession Number 66.1553.A-B

This switching of viewpoints, the ability to look at something from a fresh and unexpected angle, and then to integrate this new perspective with those that came before, seems to me the link between Sutherland’s unusual spatial intuition with his diverse contributions in computing. It’s an ability to find a new viewpoint on a subject, to look at it from this novel perspective, and then to explore how this vantage might change the subject itself through fresh solutions and directions.

Connections and Intersections

Ivan (left) and Bert Sutherland at the Computer History Museum in 2017. Courtesy Doug Fairbairn.

In what follows, I trace some of the lines of Sutherland’s story, intersecting them with related materials held in the Museum’s collection. As recounted in his oral history interviews, Ivan’s life in computing was profoundly shaped by interactions he and his brother Bert had with two central figures in the early history of computing: Edmund Berkeley and Claude Shannon. Bert, who went on to a remarkable career in computing himself, distinguished by his roles as a research manager at Xerox PARC and at Sun Laboratories, told his story in his own oral history with the Museum.

The Sutherland brothers, through a connection of their mother’s, began visiting Edmund Berkeley in New York City from their home in Scarsdale while Ivan was still in grade school. At the time, Berkeley was establishing himself as a leading author, publisher, and consultant for the new world of digital computers. In Berkeley’s offices, the Sutherland brothers encountered his light-seeking robot “Squee,” now in the collection of the Computer History Museum, which also holds some of Berkeley’s papers.

Berkeley’s “robot squirrel,” Squee. Computer History Museum, B1630.01, © Mark Richards.

The Sutherland brothers worked on their own versions of light-seeking robots afterward at home, using surplus parts their engineer-father helped them to source in New York City, and the pursuit became rather long-lasting for Ivan. As an undergraduate engineering student at Carnegie Tech (today’s Carnegie Mellon University), and then again during his early stint as a graduate student at Caltech (before moving to MIT after one year), Sutherland continued to build more advanced, refined light-seeking robots of his own design. The reason? Aesthetics, he explains in his oral history. For Sutherland, engineering design has a strong aesthetic dimension. Beauty and simplicity, for Sutherland, gave the practice of engineering an aesthetics, an affective pull. “In fact, I think that engineering and art are very closely related,” he explains.

Ivan Sutherland discusses a surplus military gunsight computer his father installed for the brothers in the family kitchen. From the new CHM oral history.

In Berkeley’s offices, the Sutherland brothers also had the opportunity to work with his new creation, Simon, a very simple and inexpensive computer. Unlike the giant mainframes of this era, which relied on thousands of vacuum tubes, Simon was animated by a handful of inexpensive relays—simple electrical on/off switches. Nevertheless, the machine was able to perform mathematical and logical operations.

Berkeley’s Simon. Computer History Museum, 102627259, © Mark Richards.

Further, Simon was programmable, using instructions encoded on a punched paper tape. During his high school years in the 1950s, Ivan Sutherland was able to devise a working program for Simon, allowing it to perform division, quite a feat for the humble machine. “I’m quite proud of having written a division routine for a two-bit computer when I was in high school,” he explains in the oral history. “So I can almost literally say I’ve been in the computer business nearly all my life.”

Through Berkeley, the Sutherland brothers were introduced to another key figure in the early years of digital computing: Claude Shannon, renowned for his development of information theory. While a maestro of abstraction, Shannon was also a keen builder. During a visit to Shannon’s office at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in northern New Jersey, he showed the brothers his creation Theseus. It consisted of a small maze of movable metal panels affixed to the top of a metal box containing magnets and relay electronics like Berkeley’s Simon. Through the action of the relay electronics and magnets, a toy mouse was able to find its way through the maze and then “remember” the successful route. While the Sutherland brothers were duly impressed, their attempts to recreate this early effort in machine problem-solving and artificial intelligence proved unsuccessful.

Claude Shannon with Theseus. Computer History Museum, 102630792.

Breakthrough at MIT

After graduating from Carnegie Tech, Ivan Sutherland headed to Caltech for graduate studies in electrical engineering. There, as he recounts in his oral history, he was invited to attend a lunch with Marvin Minsky and Oliver Selfridge, two central figures in digital computing at MIT and the new field of artificial intelligence. Over the meal, Sutherland listened to Minsky and Selfridge’s enthusiastic reports of new computer developments at MIT and its Lincoln Laboratory. Adding to Sutherland’s excitement about the computer activity at MIT was the fact that Claude Shannon had moved there. Sutherland quickly decided to continue his graduate work at MIT, and Shannon agreed to advise him.

Two unidentified women at the controls of the TX-2 in 1962.

Once at MIT, Sutherland met with Wesley Clark, the designer and impresario of an immensely powerful experimental computer, the TX-2, at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Clark had designed the TX-2 incorporating two critical innovations in computer component technology: high-speed switching transistors and large capacity magnetic core memories. The machine would provide valuable lessons about the use, capabilities, and potential of these new technologies.

A transistorized “flip-flop” logic module from the TX-2. Computer History Museum, 102732767.

But perhaps more importantly, for Clark the TX-2 had the potential to make real a kind of computing that could become more widespread in the future. As Sutherland explains in his oral history, “Wes took TX-2 and treated it as a window into the future of what computing might be if everybody had one of his own.” Sutherland proposed to use TX-2 to create software for generating engineering drawings. Without hesitation, Clark gave him access to the machine.

Ivan Sutherland discusses the origins of Sketchpad in his new CHM oral history.

In January 1963, Ivan Sutherland successfully completed his PhD on the system he created on the TX-2, Sketchpad. With it, a user was able to interactively, and in real time, create line drawings on the computer’s CRT screen, using a light pen for direct input on the display. Sketchpad afforded many different capabilities for working with these line drawings, such as the automatic completion of shapes, sizing, the ability to copy and repeat elements, and more.

Ivan Sutherland using Sketchpad on the TX-2, circa 1962-1963. Computer History Museum, 102652182.

A Sketchpad image, from Ivan Sutherland’s dissertation, 1963. Computer History Museum, 102726907.

For Sutherland, and for many others who experienced and learned about it, Sketchpad represented much more than just a new way to create line art. As he put it in his thesis, “The Sketchpad system makes it possible for a man and a computer to converse rapidly through the medium of line drawings. Heretofore, most interaction between men and computers has been slowed down by the need to reduce all communication to written statements that can by typed; in the past, we have been writing letters to rather than conferring with our computers... The Sketchpad system... opens up a new era of man-machine communication.” A listing of Sutherland’s source code for Sketchpad in the Computer History Museum’s collection is available here, and his 1994 lecture about the history of Sketchpad can be viewed here.

Innovation in the Military

After MIT, Sutherland fulfilled his ROTC commitments to military service by serving in the US Army, first at the NSA, where he continued work on computer graphics, and then as the second director of the Information Processing Technology Office of ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Administration of the Department of Defense. Only in his mid-twenties, Sutherland succeeded the MIT psychologist J. C. R. Licklider, who had established the office and its leading role in supporting computer science and artificial intelligence research in the nation.

While Sutherland continued many of Licklider’s projects at ARPA, he added new projects of his own to the mix. Critically for Sutherland, he supported a new effort by Wesley Clark, the designer of the TX-2 who had moved from MIT to Washington University, St. Louis. Clark had created an innovative small computer for an individual user called the LINC, especially suited to the real time needs of biomedical research, and moved the project and team to St. Louis. (Clark discusses the history of the LINC in a 1986 talk here.) Now, Clark envisioned an entirely new approach to computer design. In it, computers would be built up from distinct units, each unit providing an entire function. In this way, computers could be composed in a flexible and bespoke manner, built with just what was needed for some use, no more. Clark called the approach macromodule, and Sutherland funded the research.

Wesley Clark (left) and Charles Molnar (right) with a LINC computer. Molnar was a key figure in the macromodule research with Clark. Computer History Museum, 102680046.

The researchers in Clark’s macromodule effort succeeded in building a variety of different units, such as the one below donated to CHM by Ivan Sutherland that performed addition. The modularity of this new approach entailed a radical departure in digital computing design. In the mainstream, all the operations of computers were coordinated by following the regular beat of a single electronic signal, the “clock.” For the macromodule approach, an alternate, asynchronous approach to the orchestration of computer operations was required. The practical challenges and the theoretical potentials of asynchronous systems became a central passion and focus for Ivan Sutherland thereafter.

An addition function macromodule from Wesley Clark’s research group. Computer History Museum, 102766550.

Computer Graphics at Harvard and Utah

After his appointment at ARPA, Sutherland accepted a tenured engineering faculty position at Harvard University. There, Sutherland expanded his graphical ambitions from the two-dimensional abilities of Sketchpad to the concept of three-dimensional graphics and a new interface for experiencing them. Sutherland created a laboratory of graduate and undergraduate students alike, aimed at creating views of 3D scenes—drawn with lines—as well as a display worn on the head that would present different views of the 3D scene depending on the direction that the user looked. By the close of the 1960s, they had a system in place that could do just that. This project is frequently cited as an early milestone in the history of virtual reality. Sutherland discusses the project and its relation to virtual reality in this 1996 lecture.

The head-mounted display from Sutherland’s Harvard project. Computer History Museum, 102680042.

Students of USC professor and VR researcher Scott Fisher image Sutherland’s head-mounted display at the Computer History Museum in 2022 for a project to recreate his laboratory in virtual reality.

Some early results of the USC virtual reality effort.

Soon afterward, Sutherland left Harvard for the University of Utah, and for a new startup he was cofounding to pursue systems for 3D computer graphics. The key partner for Sutherland in both moves was David C. Evans, an accomplished computer researcher. Evans was establishing a computer science department focused on 3D computer graphics, the same focus as the company he was starting with Sutherland. The new company, Evans and Sutherland, moved quickly to produce workstations for creating 3D graphics, beginning with the LDS-1 and then moving on to the very successful Picture System. Other products and efforts became essential to computer animation and to military pilot training.

A page from a brochure for the Picture System. Computer History Museum, 102646288.

Sutherland and Evans also fostered a remarkably productive and creative community of students in computing and especially computer graphics at Utah, counting the cofounders of Adobe, Pixar, Silicon Graphics, and more among its members. Some of these figures discussed this remarkable environment in a 1994 meeting.

Sutherland’s experiences through his time in Utah comprise just the first half of his story in computing and engineering. Beyond it lies another startup, a faculty career at Caltech, a revolution in VLSI microchip design, a walking-robot project at Carnegie Mellon, venture capital investing, a consulting firm that became the basis for Sun Laboratories, and fresh contributions to asynchronous systems that continues to this day at Portland State. For these stories, Sutherland’s new oral history interviews (Part 1 and Part 2) are an incredible source, as are this event with the Sutherland brothers in 2004 and this retrospective lecture by Ivan Sutherland at the Computer History Museum in 2005.

Main image: Ivan Sutherland. Photo credit: BBVA Foundation.



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About The Author

David C. Brock is an historian of technology, CHM's Director of Curatorial Affairs, and director of its Software History Center. He focuses on histories of computing and semiconductors as well as on oral history. He is the co-author of Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary and is on Twitter @dcbrock.

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