History of CAD

December 12, 2022

History of CAD


Peter Selmeczy

The development of computer-aided design (CAD) spurred the revolution of multiple industries, namely engineering, manufacturing, and architecture. Since its inception in 1957, the technology of designing models on computers has gone through waves of development shaped by broader societal and technological influences. The result is that much of the world we experience around us today has been shaped by CAD.

Before reading further, we recommend trying Shapr3D to see where the future of CAD is going.

Download Shapr3D for Windows:
Also available for iPad and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Download Shapr3D for iPad:
Also available for Windows and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Also available for iPad and Windows and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Available for Windows, iPad and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.

The “Father of CAD” and the start of CAD innovation

Before the innovation of computers, most calculations for constructing structures and machines were done on paper, involving tedious drafting and lengthy calculations. During the 1940s and 1950s, the motivation behind computer development was largely due to the pressure of the military to optimize and create weapons. It was during this time, in 1957, that the Father of CAD, Dr, Patrick J. Hanratty, developed PRONTO (Program for Numerical Tooling Operations). This was the first commercial numerical control (NC) programming system that consolidated intensive design calculations into a computer program, saving time and increasing productivity. 

Public & Private CAD Development of the 60s

At the early start of CAD in the 1960s, innovation in CAD took place through the collaboration of separate, concentrated groups of researchers at universities and in the automotive and aerospace industries. The high price of the typical technology at the time made accessibility low and drove development to occur within groups. While automotive and aerospace companies kept their research private, the technology behind CAD was still able to advance quickly with researchers across the globe openly sharing and building upon each others’ work. This resulted in the relatively simultaneous development of several forms of modeling throughout the 60s and 70s that form the backbone of modeling systems today.   

Several prominent figures emerged during this time to drive CAD innovation. These researchers stemmed from key locations, specifically from automotive and aerospace companies including Ford and Lockheed, and at research centers in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MIT); Syracuse, New York; Utah; Cambridge, England; and France. Though not a comprehensive list of the innovations developed, the following are a few highlights from the time.

Private research

Private research at the time focused on increasing effectiveness in manufacturing in two different areas: defining surfaces more accurately and increasing drafting productivity.


Dr. Hanratty, who spearheaded the start of CAD, remained influential in the propagation of CAD throughout his career. Shortly after his groundbreaking CAD invention, he partnered with General Motors and IBM to create an early interactive graphic CAD system for manufacturing known as Design Automated by Computer, or DAC-1. 

Bezier Curves

Pierre Bezier of France developed a method for mathematically defining curves, known as Bezier curves, along with surfaces that he used in the building of UNISURF in 1972 for Renault automobiles to assist with automobile surface definition. Years later, UNISURF was integrated as a core structure in Dassault Systemes CATIA software.


McDonnel Douglas, now merged with Boeing, developed CADD, or Computer-graphics Augmented Design and Manufacturing with IBM and Lockheed. This system was used to construct the layout and geometry work of parts.

Public research

1963 also marked the year that Ivan Sutherland invented the first graphical user interface (GUI). During his time at MIT, Sutherland created the Sketchpad which could constrain properties of objects and instances in a drawing using a light pen on a cathode-ray tube (CRT) display.

Commercial CAD Development of the 70s

As advances in CAD were made on a global scale and hardware development caught up, the opportunity to expand the commercialization of CAD grew. Five companies rose to the forefront to dominate the expanding market. At the start of the 70s these companies were Applicon and Computervision with Auto-trol Technology, Calma, and M&S Computing later joined the scene. This surge in the commercial availability of CAD was closely tied to the increasing availability of minicomputers, gradually transforming the computer from a collector's item into a mainstream product. Within a decade, CAD quickly went from a $0 to billion dollar industry.

While commercialization expanded, key research teams continued to contribute to developing modeling technology. Notable research and technological advancements included:

NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines)

Syracuse PhD student, Ken Versprille, mathematically defined rational B-splines in 1975. Before CAD was born, “splines” were the flexible wooden strips used in the 1940s to outline the shape of an airplane or boat piece that was then drafted on paper. NURBS became one of the foundational elements for advanced geometric modeling used today.

Oslo algorithms

Responsible for fueling a significant amount of CAD development and organizing CAD conferences, the CAD Group of Cambridge, England teamed up with University of Oslo in defining a set of mathematical techniques known as the Oslo Algorithms that added to the functionality of B-splines. Leads Rich Riesenfel and Tom Lyche drove this research effort.


Ian Braid of the CAD Group of Cambridge developed B-Rep, or Boundary Representation Technology that allowed for planar and cylindrical surfaces to be constructed, though on a rudimentary level.


Developed around the same time as BUILD-1, TIPS-1 was a CSG-based (Constructive Solid Geometry) solid modeling program created by Professor N. Okino of Hokkaido University. TIPS-1 entailed combining basic shapes to form solids.


PADL-1 (Part and Assembly Description Language) formed a base for the later development of PADL-2 in the early 80s. Both ran in the language FORTRAN which made it easily portable in the computer system. From PADL-2 emerged Cadetron, a rewrite of the code in C for use on PCs.

MAGI’s SynthaVision

The development of solid modeling was carried out at relatively the same time by teams of researchers across the world. The first commercial product using a primitive form of  solids was MAGI’s SynthaVision. Coupled with high-resolution rendering, this technology made the creation of the first full-length animated feature film possible. Walt Disney Productions’ TRON first debuted in 1982.

These research developments made the evolution of modeling possible, gradually moving from 2D drawing to solid modeling.

2D drafting

When the first CAD GUIs were created, such as the Sketchpad, the modeling experience was made to be similar to drafting on paper. This maintained the 2D nature of modeling. The 1970s marked the transition from researching 2D techniques to 3D modeling.

Wireframe modeling

Wireframe modeling was the next advancement beyond shifting 2D drafting onto a GUI. Lines were connected to points in space to form the 3D structure of a model. The difficulty with this type of modeling was that it required manual work to remove hidden lines that obstructed further modeling steps.

Surface modeling

Automotive and aircraft companies needed to create smoother surfaces to cut drag and increase speed of their vehicles. Research building on Bezier curves and B-rep technology enabled the definition of surfaces and their overall shape, though lacked the ability to define the interior of a shape.

Solid modeling

Solid modeling became possible with the work of several groups of researchers in the 1970s. These techniques were carried over into the 80s as advancements such as BUILD-1 and TIPS-1 were built upon. Whereas surface modeling did not include the interior structure of surfaces, solid modeling defined relationships between surfaces, allowing for the creation of solid bodies.

Driven by the ambition to advance technology for modeling, some researchers formed companies of their own that would later be acquired to form CAD powerhouse companies to form companies still in existence today. 

CAD Industry Structural Changes of the 80s

In the 1980s, CAD continued to become more commercial and less applicable as private software. The CAD industry experienced several structural changes that reshaped the individual and collective design process.

Wider technological trends created a foundation for CAD to develop while CAD innovation also spurred on technological developments, each contributing to shaping the other. 

UNIX workstation

The UNIX workstation was introduced to the market, giving more individual control over the design process with increased accessibility to the technology that fueled 3D design. UNIX was the primary operating system at the time, mostly written in the programming language C, and developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories. With the past limited accessibility of CAD devices, CAD specialists previously had sole access to a model design. This stretched out the process of finalizing a model with engineers and CAD professionals taking hours, if not days, to complete their respective work and pass off design and model finals to each other.

IBM Model 5150 PC

In 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer (PC), the Model 5150. With the increase in memory availability, 2 floppy disc compartments, and color and monochrome display available, the PC transformed from a hobbyist collector’s item into a legitimate mainstream product. This increased overall access to CAD by making the PC more suitable for work needs and more available. What followed was the development of numerous CAD software that was increasingly affordable as well as more effective. AutoCAD was the first program released for the IBM PC shortly after the founding of Autodesk.

Apple Macintosh

Apple Macintosh introduced a point-and-click interface with the invention of the mouse. Overall, it made the PC more accessible with its ease of use.


While companies had focused on developing private or individually-tailored technology in the past, the 80s brought standardization to allow for sharing of files between different CAD systems. This began with the introduction of the Initial Graphic Exchange Standard (IGES) which formed a template for later standardization of file formats for more efficient sharing.


Pro/ENGINEER, now known as Creo, was the first program that defined parts and assemblies using geometry and parametric techniques which allowed engineers to define relationships between features. The solid modeling program ran on UNIX workstations, making it widely accessible.

Solid modeling software

Solid modeling software created a library of components that enabled the virtual creation of a model.

CAD Industry Consolidation of the 90s

3D CAD development had a foundation with the wider availability of personal computers.
In the 1990s, several trends contributed to the core of the CAD that was carried through the industry as it was consolidated:

Product Life Management (PLM) 

Much of the CAD industry shifted to start focusing on supporting the entire flow of production from concept to delivery instead of optimizing sole subsections of the process such as conceptualization.

Drafting replaced by technical drawings as byproduct of design process

The tedious and specialized drafting process typical of CAD was replaced with the ability to create technical drawings alongside a completed model. This saved time and decreased barriers for more design professionals to create manufacturing drawings.

Lower barrier to technical education

With the PC becoming more mainstream, the greater accessibility to technology also contributed to creating a lower barrier to technical education. Engineers gained more control over the design process as a whole.

Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)

Though it was developed in the 1980s, it was in 1994 that STEP became the new format that replaced IGES for transferring 3D models. The method was intended to increase precision and cross-platform compatibility.

The Internet

CAD companies began using the internet to give users the capability to use web browsers to preview their models.

In the 1990s, the CAD industry consolidated into four companies:

UGS (later Siemens PLM), Dassault Systemes, Autodesk, and PTC. These four companies introduced software that set the standard for CAD at the time. 

The Personal Computer & Mid-range Systems of the 2000s

While technology progressed, CAD continued to develop according to the precedent set in the 90s. A plethora of mid-range CAD systems were put out in the early 2000s. The advancements that characterized this era and influenced CAD were:

Design Data Management

The early 2000s were more about sustainability rather than innovation in the world of CAD. Autodesk, SolidWorks, and Catia all put out several new software aimed to add more stability and reduce concept-to-manufacturing time by better managing design data.

iPhone Multitouch UI

While the first multitouch user interface was created in the 70s, the iPhone brought added further capabilities on a mobile screen. It wouldn’t be until the next decade that CAD software companies began to explore mobility and changes in UIs to fit the new expectations of consumers shaped by the iPhone.

Direct modeling

Direct modeling as an alternative to parametric modeling was fundamentally created with the development of the ACIS and Parasolid geometric kernels. However, it was in 2007 that the benefits of direct modeling became apparent with the release of CoCreate from PTC. Similarly, SpaceClaim, founded in 2005 by the same founder as PTC and SolidWorks, Mike Payne, also came with a direct modeling system, which was later built upon when it was acquired by ANSYS in 2014. 

Building Information Management (BIM)

A standout innovation in CAD in the 2000s was the launch of Revit by Revit Technology Corporation which transformed Building Information Modeling (BIM). With Revit, the user could make adjustments for any conflicts found between objects, increasing precision, and subsequent model stability significantly. This revolutionized BIM, creating a foundation for future development in the field of architecture.

The Mobility of the 2010s & CAD Catching Up

As consumers were presented with more and more options that gave them the freedom to customize their work process to fit their individual needs and lifestyle, the need for CAD to evolve alongside these needs became clear.

iPad & Apple Pencil

Though renowned for its breakthrough novelty, at first, the birth of the Apple iPad in 2010 was seen largely as a luxury device. Much like the introduction of the PC in the time of the workstation, most of the CAD community didn’t consider the technology as a viable platform for CAD. The perception was that the ease of the iPad made it akin to a toy instead the next wave in making CAD more mature and innovative. The launch of the iPen in 2015 began to change this perception with a shift to increasing the breadth of functionality of the iPad.

Platform compatibility

The 2010s marked a time when fitting operating systems (OS) functionality to users' more mobile needs become pivotal. Over time, Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android emerged as the main contenders. 

4G Networks

Mobile apps like Twitter, Google Maps, and Uber all became possible with the creation of 4G networks from 2010 to 2011. These apps became the standard as people expected their technology to interact with them in a human way and for usage to be intuitive.

Internet of Things (IoT)

With wireless networking, a number of appliances were added to the list of objects in the environment that people could control to fit their needs and lifestyle. The IoT, coined by Kevin Ashton in 2009, set the stage for the emergence of artificial intelligence.

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft debuted its cloud-computing platform, competing with the initial launch of Amazon Web Services in 2006. The market for cloud computing took a significant uptick, paving the way to make cloud services the norm.

What did all these developments mean for the CAD user in 2010?

CAD remained strongly tied to the PC until companies began experimenting with creating technology that harnessed these shifts in technology. There are a few companies that stand out in being at the forefront of harnessing these technologies to revolutionize CAD.

The Evolution of Industry 5.0 in the 2020s

The Industrial Revolutions of the past few centuries since 1760 to the present have shaped the overall nature of emergent technology. Currently, revolutions are speeding up to potentially occur every decade. CAD in the 2020s is shaping up to meet these fast-paced shifts in the dynamics between technology and humans, particularly in keeping pace and innovating along with Industry 5.0.


Moving to the cloud cuts down on technology costs while also acting as strong advantage for more immediate access to designs, providing increased mobility. Autodesk A360 and later Fusion 360 as well as Shapr3D are among the first to offer the option to store designs in their individual cloud platforms.

Artificial intelligence (AI) & machine learning

Concepts such as generative design are taking hold to form the basis of software such as Fusion 360 and SolidWorks 2020. This allows for the automation of the design process as the software explores possibilities of how to design the ideal model requirements input by the user for greater efficiency in developing a shape that will withstand a set minimum load.

3D Printing

The benefit of 3D printing to cut concept-to-manufacturing time makes quick conceptualization and iteration as well as compatibility with major file formats a necessity. While parametric modeling has stood out in the past and remained at the core of many CAD software, direct modeling provides an advantage to directly interact with model geometry for edit and iteration accessibility.

Into The Future

Predictions for innovations of the 2020s include the expansion of synthetic media, living robots, further developments in AR, quantum computing, and cloud-managed networking. Any of these potential innovations could influence the direction of CAD and vice versa. Overall, the influence of the CAD industry has expanded to reach industries such as medicine, industrial design, fashion, and computer graphic animation (CGA).

From the shoes we wear, the buildings we frequent, the movies we watch, and the products we use, CAD has acted as a blueprint for forming the physical world around us. With the further democratization of CAD that enables more and more people to adopt CAD for their daily needs, the future of CAD becomes an increasingly collaborative endeavor. We can only imagine: what’s next?

Download Shapr3D for Windows:
Also available for iPad and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Download Shapr3D for iPad:
Also available for Windows and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Also available for iPad and Windows and fully supported on Wacom tablets.
Available for Windows, iPad and Mac and fully supported on Wacom tablets.