Want more evidence that tradition in user interfaces has blinded us to the possibilities for making graphics fluid and intuitive? Just look at the first known GUI, Dr. Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad. His 1962 PhD thesis at MIT, Sketchpad represents a whole bundle of firsts: the first object-oriented programming project, the first use of a toolbar, the first real-time graphics system, the first drawing program, the first GUI, the first use of instances, the first use of draggable vector graphics … and yet, that’s not what’s impressive about this. What’s really impressive is that the work of this one man still holds up in 2008, and not all of what he does here has been fully answered by modern UIs. (Sometimes the past turns out to be more futuristic than the present, perhaps because people doing modern development work don’t know enough of their history.)

The video here is introduced by Xerox PARC’s Dr. Alan Kay, who was later an Apple Fellow (among other things), and made his own contributions to UI history.

This is doubly interesting to me, because the simplicity of this kind of project makes it ideal for people writing their own interfaces into tools like Processing. And notice how nice it is having a persistent physical interface — something that might not be practical for Adobe, but could be perfectly practical for a DIY electronics builder and live visual performer. You can read his full thesis, and for more UI history with Alan Kay, there’s a full 1987 documentary that traces this and many other developments (including the mouse) on the Internet Archive.

Ivan Sutherland celebrated his 70th birthday last week, as described by Java creator James Gosling:
Happy Birthday, Ivan! [James Gosling: on the Java Road]

Gosling points out that even more interesting than this interface is what Ivan has to say about technology and courage. It’s well worth reading if you’re embarking on a research project of your own.