The Hardware Timeline of CAD

Many of you might not know it, but mechanical CAD can trace its roots to the 1950s. In 1957 Dr. Patrick Hanratty, sometimes referred to as the “Father of CAD”, developed the first numerical control manufacturing system. He later went on to license technology to United Computing and Intergraph (both now part of Siemens PLM), Computervision (now part of PTC) and many others.

History of CAD sketchpad - Courtesy of www.computerhisto​

In 1962 Dr. Ivan Sutherland invented Sketchpad, a predecessor to the graphical design systems we use today. Many advances in Mechanical CAD have been possible because of advances in computer technology - from the introduction of time sharing of mainframe computers to the invention of the smart phone.

Rise of the workstation

When I first started writing CAD software for McDonnell Douglas in the early 1980s the CAD world was transitioning from mainframes to “minicomputers”. By minicomputer I mean a machine that weighed a few tons! When we “shipped” a release the software wasn’t downloadable from the internet or even mailed on a DVD or CD. We shipped the software, the graphics terminals and even the desks and chairs that an engineer would need when using the CAD software. We then sent somebody on site to install the software from a set of reel-to-reel magnetic tapes.

We shipped the software, the graphics terminals and even the desks and chairs that an engineer would need when using the CAD software. We then sent somebody on site to install the software from a set of reel-to-reel magnetic tapes." It’s just too good.

Over the next decade and a half we witnessed the evolution of computers that were shared between companies, machines that could be purchased by and dedicated to a single engineering department, workstations that sat on (or at least under) an engineer’s desk and finally portable personal computers that an engineer could use in the office, on a train or plane and at home.

Disrupting the current status quo

We are now in the middle of the next computer revolution, one that will inevitably have a more profound impact on how engineering is done than the introduction of powerful personal computers in the mid-1990s. The cloud makes application data securely available to any device at any time. Elastic computing provides resources to software programs at an unprecedented scale. Smart phones combine a computer, a communication device, a video camera and an advanced application platform into a single tool that can be put in your pocket. The best computer is the one that you have with you right now.

It’s natural that engineers will take advantage of being able access their data from any device at any time.

How will this affect CAD? It’s natural that engineers will take advantage of being able access their data from any device at any time. They will leverage the massive computing power of the cloud, and they will enjoy the benefits of having a computer in their pocket that allows them to work where they want, when they want. This will, in turn, lead to tighter supply chain collaboration; better integration between design, manufacturing and service delivery; and ultimately better products.

History of CAD Timeline

Proprietary Systems

1960s: Large Automotive and Aerospace companies begin to develop their own proprietary CAD/CAM systems for internal use. Only very large companies had access to computer aided design. It was debatable whether CAD was more productive than traditional techniques.


1972: IBM releases VM/CMS mainframe operating system (virtual machine/conversational monitor system). Machines running VM/CMS could be used for batch computing or time-sharing.

1977: The French aerospace company Dassault begins development of CATIA, a 3d CAD system originally written to run on mainframe operating systems Commercial CAD systems become available and productive for high end users, primarily Aerospace companies.


1977: Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) releases the VAX 11/780 running the 32-bit virtual memory VMS operating system. These machines would be used for batch processing, time-sharing and real time computing. They came with integrated computer networking and standardized methods for calling between programming languages.

1983: Unigraphics II is released by McDonnell Douglas. Sometimes called UG II, this product takes advantage of virtual memory on VMS and AOS/VS operating systems. UG II provides 3d wireframe and surface modeling, associative drafting, finite element analysis and CAM. With UG II and its contemporaries CAD becomes competitive with traditional engineering techniques.

UNIX Workstations

1982: SUN Microsystems founded. SUN helped popularize UNIX for scientific computing. Each workstation, which could sit on an engineer’s desk, contained a CPU, a graphics device or terminal and input devices. They were easy to network together to facilitate sharing and access to data and processing. Individual UNIX workstations would ultimately be much more powerful than an entire 11/780 minicomputer.

UNIX workstations were sometimes called Open Systems because hardware could be purchased from many vendors that ran approximately the same operating system (SUN, HP, Apollo, Silicon Graphics, IBM, DEC, Microsoft and others).

1987: Pro/Engineer Version 1.0 is released. PTC introduces parametric, feature-based solid modeling, a paradigm that all popular CAD system copy. For the first time solid modeling becomes a productive alternative to wireframe and surface modeling. Engineering managers can now purchase a “seat” of CAD without the approval of the MIS department.

Personal Computers

1995: Microsoft launches Windows 95. One operating system, OEMed by many computer manufacturers, comes to dominate the personal computer market.

1995: Solid Edge V1 and SolidWorks 95 released

1999: Autodesk Inventor released.

Engineers can now have one computer one their desk for both CAD and office applications. They can purchase and install the software themselves without the assistance of the IT department.

Elastic and Mobile Computing

2006: Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched, providing online services for other web sites and client side applications

2007: Apple iPhone released

2010: GrabCAD is founded. The GrabCAD library of CAD models helps establish the world’s largest and fastest growing community of mechanical CAD professionals.

2013: GrabCAD Workbench, iOS app and Android app are released

Engineers can now collaborate seamlessly with coworkers and supply chain partners. They can view, interrogate and annotate their CAD models from any device, anytime, anywhere.

Share your CAD history with us

When did you start your career as a mechanical engineer or CAD professional? What were your first tools? What was your first computer? How do you think the cloud and mobile computing will affect your daily and professional lives? Have you tried Workbench? We’d love to hear from you.


guide to CAD file management

Struggling with CAD file management?  

Unmanaged CAD data can lead to wasted time and  expensive mistakes, but traditional PDM and PLM solutions are too costly for many companies. This guide, written by industry analyst Jim Brown, will help you find the solution that fits your needs.

guide to CAD file management