In our nostalgic look, we take a trip back to a time before Wacom graphic tablets became the norm

Among the tools we take for granted in our studio is the trusty Wacom tablet. We find it a boom for illustration, especially for web design, brochures, and image manipulation. Being able to negotiate the tablet like a pen is second nature compared with a mouse. Graphics tablets have been in existence for the last forty years.

The most seminal creation was the Quantel Paintbox. Launched in 1981, it became the ‘must-have’ tool for television graphics. The system included a VDU, keyboard, a ‘digital paintbox’, and a giant graphics tablet. The original model had 160 MB of hard drive space. This was back when 10 MB was a big deal on the original IBM PC (a chunky 8086 processor-based machine released the very same year).

To say it revolutionised television graphics was an understatement as it led to the creation of similar, more advanced systems in its wake. Back in 1981, some of the smaller ITV franchises and independent production companies may have struggled to buy a Quantel Paintbox – let alone home users. In 1983, British Micro launched the Grafpad. This was a graphics tablet that plugged into the back of a Sinclair Spectrum computer, which came with a light pen and utility software.

One of the most successful graphics tablets of the 8 bit era of computing was KoalaPad. Originally released for the Commodore 64, it was hailed as one of the best graphics packages for the time. It came with a small touch sensitive pad with two buttons, a cordless pen, and utility software (Koala Painter). It didn’t only became a ‘must have’ tool for graphic designers with a C64: other machines like the Apple ][ and the Tandy TRS-80 were supported.

Without KoalaPad, we wouldn’t have got the venerable Wacom tablet. The Wacom uses similar design principles (wireless pen, small pad) but (most importantly), it doesn’t tie you to one utility package.

Today, the graphics tablets see a new threat: the Microsoft Surface Studio PCs could take their place. Microsoft’s cutting edge design sees the monitor turning into an electronic drawing board. Instead of a pen, a control dial is used to choose colours and other settings. This could be a game changer in design studios around the world.

Dreamkatcha, 04 April 2017.

British Micros’ Grafpad III image by 488405 Sespo (Creative Commons License: Share Alike-Attribution).