Bringing Ideas to Life: The Evolution of Drafting

Ever wondered about the earlier history of drafting? Before the advent of CAD, the tool bag of the architect was chock-full of instruments: a drafting table, pencils, several different kinds of paper, all kinds of measuring tools— the list goes on. Compare that to the architects of today— almost all the tools they need are housed in a single electronic device. Pretty wild how far the field has come, no? That’s what we want to delve into, so strap in as we venture back in time to examine drafting’s humble origins and how it evolved into what it is today.

Drafting Set in Stone?

Drafting can be traced back several thousands of years, found in remnants of drawings on natural materials. The oldest example we have dates back to 2,000 B.C.: an aerial perspective drawing of a Babylonian castle. We also have the 4,000-year-old statue of the ancient Mesopotamian ruler Gudea. There are numerous statues of Gudea, but this particular one shows him seated with a tablet resting on his lap. Not a tablet like the ones we have today, mind you, but just like the trusty device of the modern day architect, Gudea’s stone tablet holds the plan for a building (in this instance, a temple.) The plan is carved into the miniature stone tablet just as it would’ve been in real life at full scale, and the sculptor of the statue even included a little stone stylus and a measuring tool that resembles a ruler, too. (A sculpture of a Mesopotamian ruler, holding a Mesopotamian ruler? It doesn’t get more meta than that!) It’s also worth noting that the inscribed temple plan is from an aerial perspective, just like that Babylonian castle drawing we mentioned earlier. This perspective is common in early architectural drawings, and is still used to this day—albeit we now refer to it as "planview."

From Stone to Paper

Jumping ahead a few thousand years to the 14th century, Renaissance era drawings were done in a variety of mediums including charcoal, chalk, several different kinds of ink, as well as etching. Drawings were also becoming more accurate at this time,  likely because drafting was being used more than ever before. It was used to plan out paintings and sculptures, not just architecture. There was an intrinsic link at this time between drawing as a whole and the other art forms, with “the centres and the high points of drawing… generally coincid[ing] with the leading localities and the major epochs of the other arts.”

During this time of strong convergence between drafting and so many of the other art forms, the architectural drafting process started to be influenced by those other art forms. We can thank Michelangelo for that, for one. It’s said that Michelangelo never considered himself an architect, and yet he had a hand in engineering numerous buildings throughout Italy. It’s true that he wasn’t a classically trained architect, but it was his divergence from the conventions instilled in his classically trained peers that made his works so revolutionary. He utilized drawing as a way of bringing ideas to life, and proved that expression and creativity could transfer from drawing to architecture, the same way they could be imbued into a painting or sculpture. 

Da Vinci is another master from the Renaissance era who had a lasting impact on drafting and architecture. His drawings were anchored by mathematics and engineering principles, and through them he explored geometry, proportions, perspective, and symmetry the way no one had done before. He served as an inspiration to many of his contemporaries, and still serves as an inspiration to artists, architects, and engineers living today. Da Vinci was so ahead of his time, in fact, that many of the plans he drafted for various inventions and structures have been proven viable in the present day. 

From Paper to Pixels

Hurtling into the 20th century, we find the beginnings of CAD software. The first iteration was called Pronto, developed in 1957 by the father of CAD Dr. Patrick Hanratty. Just a few years after developing Pronto, Hanratty joined forces with IBM and General Motors to create DAC, or Design Automated by Computer (not-so-spoiler-alert: the name would later be changed to CAD.)

While Hanratty was developing his technology, a computer scientist at MIT created Sketchpad, one of the first design systems to implement a graphic user interface. This technology eventually allowed for drawing to be done in CAD with a light-pen. As this digitized way of drafting caught on, it still hadn’t fully replaced the tried and true material tools that architects had come to rely on— not yet, anyway. 

In 1982, a new software emerged: AutoDesk. AutoDesk made drafting software accessible on PC, whereas before AutoCAD technology was only accessible through mainframe computers. Shortly after its invention, AutoDesk started providing 3D modeling systems, which took the drafting world by storm. While the new technology was helpful in many ways, there were also many people who underwent extensive schooling to learn how to draft by hand, but then found themselves in need of more schooling to learn this new method. Of course, even today there are plenty who still prefer to draw at least their first draft by hand. Plus, there are more accessible ways to learn 3D modeling now through online courses. But, like with the adoption of any new technology, there were definitely some growing pains.

In fact, that goes for any point in history.  From stone, to paper, to pixels, drafting has certainly come a long way. Where do you think it’s heading next? If you’re interested in continuing our exploration of drafting and want to hear from a fellow modern day drafter about their experience in the field, be sure to check out our Blind Date with a Drafter series. And if you want to keep up with Drafting Marketplace and how we ourselves are evolving, be sure to find us on Facebook and Instagram!