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Examining the History of Engineering Drafting and Design

Trevor English
December 20, 2016

To many engineers out there of the younger persuasion, drawing out plans by hand may seem like a myth, but in days not too long past, teams of workers would spend weeks drawing out plans for a simple part.

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Examining the history of engineering drafting and design equivocally means looking at the history of man, the history of building things. Drafting and design have been around since the dawn of time. The earliest recorded history of engineering drafting was in 2000 B.C., of which we have a fossilized aerial view plan of a Babylonian castle. Since then, and with the advent of paper, engineering drafting has been fairly analog. For the majority of drafting’s history, it was an art form perfected by skilled designers and essential to a culture’s infrastructure. For quite a long time, engineering meant getting out paper and drawing out plans and designs by hand.

The modern age of engineering drafting was ushered in back in 1963 when a man named Ivan Sutherland invented a little program called Sketchpad. This was the first graphically interfaced CAD program – if you can call it that – to allow users to create x-y plots. By no means were engineers of the day using this program on a daily basis or even at all, but it started what is now a booming computer aided design industry all centered around engineering design.

A significant intellectual and financial investment was made in the 1960s into CAD programs by engineers at Boeing, Ford, Citroen, MIT, and GM. Likely evident by the companies involved, CAD emerged as a way to simplify automotive and aerospace designs. Due to significant, lack of processing power compared to today’s standards, early CAD design required large financial and engineering capabilities.

 

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Autodesk at COMDEX in 1984, displaying the latest version of AutoCAD

 

However, thanks to Moore’s Law and the rapid growth of electronics, CAD capabilities expanded steadily over the next half century. Right in the middle of that growing advancement, the engineering world saw the foundation of Autodesk and the release of “AutoCAD Release 1.” Admittedly the marketing and naming department wasn’t as good as it is today back then. At the time of its release AutoCAD was ridiculed by the then leading CAD software companies, but it continued to grow in the engineering community. At this time, it was the computer hardware available that was holding CAD programs back. Despite the massive effort by the technical field in the early 1980s, it wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that CAD software became capable enough to be practical in engineering design.

After significant competition from competing CAD design firm Parametric, Autodesk took the leading market share of the CAD industry in 1992, valued then at $285 million. CAD software of the time wasn’t what we think of today, however, as leading programs functioned in 2D. It took market demand for 3D CAD software to be released in the mid-1990s. It’s growth ultimately exploded into the current CAD market with the programs we see today.

There’s no shortage of capable competition in the computer design industry, which is beneficial to the engineer. The history of design and drafting is one of paper, rapidly bookended by digital expansion. Engineers today have been made dramatically more capable than engineers of the past. I, for one, am glad to be an engineer in the modern age, and I’m sure you are too.

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Trevor English

Trevor is a civil engineer by trade with an extensive background in technical writing and content production. He is inspired by finding new and interesting technologies and bringing them to the world.

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