Because history can get very detailed, this article will just include a summary timeline. If you want to know more, just click the links dotted throughout
1950 - Laposky's Oscilon
Our story begins in 1950 with Benjamin Francis Laposky, a sign painter and army veteran who was also an artist and mathematician. In addition to getting a kick out of creating Magic Square Puzzles, Ben created what is arguably the first set of computer generated images, "electrical compositions" using a cathode ray oscilloscope:
1959 - The first CAD Package
In 1959, General Motors and IBM begin the research which leads to the 1963 release of the DAC-1 (Design Augmented by Computer), which was the first CAD system for drafting and designs. With this large assortment of equipment (and I mean really big equipment), The digital design era was off to a very good start!
(image from ComputerHistory.org)
1960 - Computer Graphics
in 1960, William Fetter was making pictures for Boeing Aircraft Co. After a few back and forward chats between him and his colleagues, the term 'Computer Graphics' was used for the first time, to describe Fetter's job!
Fetter created the 'Boeing Man', which is the first time (which we know of) that a computer was used to draw the human figure:
1963 - Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad
In 1963, Ivan Sutherland Completed his PHD thesis (which means he did some research and wrote a paper, and in exchange became Dr Ivan Sutherland). As part of his research, he made a computer program called Sketchpad (Not to be confused with Google SketchUp), which completely changed the way people interacted with computers (Mice weren't quite common yet). You used a special pen to draw lines directly onto the computer screen, something that had never existed before. It led to the creation of the GUI (Graphical user interface) and Object oriented programming (which is another kettle of fish altogether!).
Here's a demo video of SketchPad presented by Alan Kay in 1987:
1967 - Hummingbird
In 1967, two gentlemen by the name of Charles Csuri and James Schaffer created a film called Hummingbird.
This is arguably the first computer animated film ever created. It's not 3D (We're not quite there yet), but instead it's made of lines etched directly onto film (we're talking microfilm) by a micro-film plotter. Back in 1967 this meant a huge amount of programming and preparing to make the plotter print exactly what was needed onto each frame of the film (all 30,000 or so frames of it).
Here is where 3D starts to come into play, where 3D computer graphics jumps from complete fiction into the realm of possibility.
1967 - Coons Patch
Also in 1967, Steven Anson Coons developed a little piece of mathematics (okay, quite a long piece of maths) called the Coons Patch (You can download the PDF of his paper from here. It's all a little bit strange and complicated, but it expands on the idea of a Bezier surface and is what 3D tools we use today like the b-spline and NURBs surface are based on! If all that didn't melt your brain completely, here's a pretty diagram:
1968 - University of Utah Computer Graphics Program
In 1968, The University of Utah created a computer graphics program. This may not be a big deal today, but in 1968 it was a new and largely unexplored area of research (the kind of thing that gets scientists really excited). Eventually, they changed the name of the program, and it became known as the GDC (Geometric Design and Computation Group), but regardless of what it's called, a lot of the first 3D pioneers spent some time there. These include Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of Sketchpad (which we totally already knew), Henri Gouraud, who developed Gouraud Shading (a type of shading that smooths the light change between polygons), Frank Crow, who did a lot of research into anti-aliasing methods, Ed Catmull who co-founded Pixar, John Warnock who co-founded Adobe Systems, and Lance Williams, who made pretty big leaps in 3D, focusing on texture mapping, shadow rendering, facial animation and anti-aliasing.
1969 - SIGGRAPH
In 1969, the Association for Computing Machinery (established in 1947) created SIGGRAPH, a 'special interest group for graphics'. In 1973, they held their first annual conference, which are nowadays very popular and attended by thousands of industry professionals and researchers each year. If you're lucky enough to be anywhere near the conference when it occurs, it's a great place to get a look at the most cutting-edge developments in graphics, interactivity and 3D!
1972 - A Computer Animated Hand
In 1972, Ed Catmull (Who went on to be the founder of Pixar, his name comes up a lot) and Fred Parke created the first digital 3D film, "A Computer Animated Hand". Film is a loose term, it's mostly a collection of animation snippets, but it has bits of making-of footage between them and is quite fascinating to watch. Parts of it were used in the 1976 film, Futureworld.
This film was digitised (put onto the computer) and blogged by Robby Ingebretsen, who's father helped with the sound for the original clip. You can find out more about the film and the claims that it was a hoax by visiting Robby's blog.
1972 - Greenberg and Cornell
Also in 1972, Dr Don Greenberg was teaching at Cornell University. He, along with his class at the time, created another famous early 3D film (again, film is a pretty loose term), called "Cornell in Perspective". Greenberg is a pretty important figure in 3D history. Apart from the film, he's taught many 3D pioneers, including Robert Cook, who co-created Pixar's Renderman and is now the Vice President of Pixar's software engineering department, Marc Levoy who worked on some of the earliest volume rendering techniques and Wayne Lytle, who is the founder of Animusic. Here's the film they made:
If that wasn't enough, Greenberg also helped make and write about the Cornell Box, a test which is (even nowadays) used for testing render engines and their ability to copy the way real world materials work together. You can also take a look at this Cornell box comparison to get an idea of why it's useful.
1973 - Phong, Blinn and Lambert
In 1973, Bui Tuong Phong invented the Phong shading method as part of his Ph.D. dissertation (the research he did to become a doctor) and the Phong reflection model.
Many materials in modern 3D packages are named for the people who devised them. The Phong shader is in honour of Bui Tuong Phong, Blinn in honour of Jim Blinn's Blinn-Phong shading model, the Lambert shader is named after Johann Heinrich Lambert (who lived in the 1700s would you believe) and his work in map projections.
You can find out more by consulting Wikipedia's list of common shading algorithms.
1975 - The Utah Teapot
In 1975 the Utah Teapot was digitised (put into the computer and made 3D) by Martin Newell at the University of Utah. The story goes that Newell and his wife Sandra were having tea, and he was complaining about not having a nice complex shape (but nothing too mathematically complicated) that he could use for his 3D lighting and material experiments. Sandra told him to make a 3D model of the teapot they were using. Newell agreed, and digitised the teapot, which in 1975 meant manually drawing out where the polygons should go, and typing the coordinates of each polygon into the computer. Probably because this was a tedious process and there were other researchers with the same problem, he made the teapot data publicly available for others to use, which they did, and is the reason why this particular teapot pops up in 3D history so often.
If you're up for a bit of fun, you can download an OBJ version of 3D Studio Max's Utah Teapot or download a paper-craft version and make your own!
1975 - Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)
in 1975, George Lucas was planning to make Star Wars, and decided he wanted some pretty spectacular visual effects (as you would). He founded Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and assembled a team of visual effects experts to work on the Star Wars series. As the series became popular (it's still one of the most popular franchises of all time) and ILM got bigger, they experimented more and more with 3D. In 1979, they hired Ed Catmull (who worked on A Computer Animated Hand in 1972) to help set up their CGI department. John Lasseter (who had just been fired by Disney for a bout of over-enthusiasm) came on board later in the 1980s. ILM continues to be a successful visual effects studio, working on hundreds of films including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Ghostbusters, Terminator and lots more.
1976 - Tron
In 1976, Steven Leisberger got a glimpse of Pong for the first time. He was so excited that he got to work right away on a new film script. Leisberger worked with Digital Effects Inc., one of the first computer graphics houses in New York to create the feature film, Tron. Tron had a lot of CG in it for the times (over 15 minutes of full CG) and also included very early facial animation (not to mention it created a cult following).
1982 - Autodesk and AutoCAD
In 1982, Autodesk was founded by John Walker, and created AutoCAD, which was released the same year. AutoCAD ran on the IBM PC, a small personal computer, at a time when most CAD packages ran on large mainframes (which took up a massive amount of room and cost a great deal of money). Originally, AutoCAD and other packages like it were purely for Drafting, nowadays, AutoCAD and other CAD package have fancy features like the capability to work in 3D!
1984 - Andre and Wally B
In December 1984, The Graphics Group (A part of LucasFilm's computer graphics department) created a short film called Andre and Wally B. This film showcased several effects which had never been seen before in 3D, including Motion Blur, shapes capable of squash and stretch and complex 3D backgrounds. This sparked the film industry's interest in 3D as a storytelling method.
1985 - Alias
In 1985, Alias went to SIGGRAPH in San Francisco to show off their latest product, the Alias/1. Alias went on to develop The Advanced Visualizer, PowerAnimator and AliasSketch! which were all pieced together and refined, leading to the eventual release of Maya 1.0 in 1998. While Maya and many other Alias products have since been bought out by Autodesk (Maya was bought from them in 2005), Maya is still one of the leading 3D packages on the market, because it's so robust and customisable (even though it crashes a lot).
1986 - Pixar
In 1986, Steve Jobs bought the Graphics Group, which was part of Lucasfilm's computer division. The team broke off to form Pixar Animation Studios. Ed Catmull becomes the co-founder and chief technical officer, and Pixar becomes a small company with 44 employees. Wow!
1986 - Jim Kajiya's Rendering Equation
Also in 1986, the Rendering Equation was introduced, commonly credited to Jim Kajiya (though other people had the same idea at roughly the same time). This equation is complicated, but very important to the way computers render 3D.
1988 - The Yost Group develops 3D Studio
In 1988, The Yost Group started work on a new program for Autodesk, who had recently been successful with their package, AutoCad. Gary Yost (who sadly doesn't have a wikipedia page) headed up a team to produce 3D Studio, a 'Swiss army knife' for anyone who wanted to do 3D animation. 3D Studio has gone through a number of iterations and name changes (now called Autodesk 3ds Max), to become one of the most versatile commercial 3D packages of today. You can find out more in a recent interview with Gary Yost.
1991 - Terminator 2
In 1991, James Cameron's Terminator 2 was released. This was the first use of 3D for realistic human movements, and the first use of a personal computer (rather than custom-built speciality machines) for major film 3D effects. It worked, because the T-1000 is pretty creepy even by today's standards!
You can find a clip of the scene here.
1993 - Weta Digital
In 1993, Weta Workshop, a special effects and prop company based in New Zealand of all places (who started out in 1987 as RT Effects) split off part of the company towards a digital division called Weta Digital. The first job Weta Digital had was to create digital effects for Peter Jackson's film, Heavenly Creatures. They did all the effects for the film using a single computer and some film equipment. The fact that Peter Jackson, an established director in his own right, partially owned Weta helped the studio gain some well needed work and exposure. Nearly twenty years on, Weta Digital is responsible for some of the biggest leaps in photo-realistic 3D for film production.
1994 - ReBoot
In 1994, ReBoot was aired. It was the first half-hour computer animated TV series, created by Mainframe entertainment (now Rainmaker Entertainment). It went for 4 seasons and ran until 2001. Here's a trailer:
1995 - Toy Story
In 1995, Pixar's Toy Story is released by Walt Disney Pictures (because they paid for it, so much for giving Lasseter the boot!). It was the first film to be made entirely in 3D, and it was a massive success, which kick-started an entire animation industry.
1997 - Poser and DAZ Studio
In 1997, Larry Weinberg (who also has no wikipedia page) published Version 1.0 of Poser through the company Fractal Design. It was supposed to replace an artist's mannequin. Poser exchanged hands throughout the years, going from Fractal Designs to MetaCreations, then sold to E Frontier, and finally Smith Micro, who own and operate it today (and have a DeviantArt page. Poser and its free counterpart, DAZ Studio (released in 2005) are now used among a large hobbyist community of 3D artists, who like their ease of use and minimal 3D experience required to use them (including all our wonderful Poser and DAZ-based deviants!).
1999 - ZBrush and Digital Sculpting
In 1999, Ofer Alon (why so many interesting people without wiki pages?), founder of Pixologic Inc, took their newest software, ZBrush to show off at SIGGRAPH. It's now possible to create highly detailed 3D models with similar methods to how you would make real-world sculptures.
2003 - 3D Printing boom
In 2003, the sale and production of rapid prototype 3D printers sky-rocketed, and it became possible to create real world objects that can't be made with traditional methods. Small intricate objects, interlinked objects, and impossible shapes which bend into themselves are now being manufactured. 3D became not only a means for computer art and image prints, but can now translate to real-world objects. Find out more about 3D printing here.
2006 - Disney Pixar
In 2006, The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar Animation Studios. John Lasseter (who they're really trying to forget they fired) became the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, while Ed Catmull kept his position as president, also becoming president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Pixar however, was not merged into Disney, and remains a separate entity, with their own policies, logos and studio.
2009 - Avatar
In 2009, James Cameron released Avatar, one of the biggest and most ambitious 3D films ever made. It is the first feature-length film with full 3D photo-realistic world and characters, and took a massive amount of computing power, storage and very smart people to make it work.
Of course, the story doesn't end there. 3D computer graphics is a fast-developing field, gaining momentum both in professional work and homes worldwide as a hobby. The field is now split into 3 sub-phases, Modeling, Layout and animation and rendering.
3D is becoming more accessible and the advancement of technology is making it possible for 3D films, games and artwork to be created on inexpensive personal computers within the home.
Where will the next advancements be? Who knows!
A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation - Wayne Carlson, 2003, The Ohio State University
Wikipedia - Timeline of Computer Animation in Film and Television
Wikipedia - 3D Computer Graphics
History of Computer Graphics (PDF)