The Company That Waited Decades for the Touchscreen Revolution

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

These days, nearly everyone owns a touchscreen device of some kind, and odds are, you’re probably reading the opening lines of this story on one.

But there was a time, not that long ago, that touch-based devices were less common and often had more specialized uses. Around 2006, for example, before the release of the iPhone, my primary touch-based device had nothing to do with a phone. In fact, I couldn’t even interact with it using my finger; it required me to use a pen.

See, I worked in graphic design—mostly in newspapers—and as a result of that, I owned a tablet. For drawing, of course. It didn’t have a screen.

I wasn’t a great artist by any means, but that little Wacom drawing tablet was nice when I was tweaking cutouts and hopping into Photoshop or Illustrator. (I’m pretty good at cutouts if I do say so myself.)

Wacom was ahead of the curve on touch computing by multiple decades. (And it wasn’t even first!) And even if Wacom didn’t lead the touchscreen revolution, there’s a lineage between these computer drawing tablets and the touchscreens we eventually got. Here’s how one influenced the other.

“Only a little reflection will show that nearly all of the information used by business data processing computers originates in the minds of humans. What is needed are methods and devices which will allow these people to produce, by simple and inexpensive means, the initial expression of their information in a form suitable for machine reading.”

— T.L. Dimond, an engineer and executive at Bell Labs, describing the use case for handwritten character recognition in a 1957 article. “Without these,” he adds, “there will be many situations, especially where the volume of input information is large in comparison to the amount of processing, where computers cannot be proven even if they cost little or nothing.”

Dimond’s article introduces the concept of the Stylator, a device that is considered the first-ever computerized pen-based drawing tablet. The device was primitive, only accepting characters, but it worked in real time. It, along with the Rand Tablet from 1963, were the earliest forms of stylus-based input.

Before there was Wacom, there was … uh, Apple

The first tablet Apple ever released came to life because of weirdo rock icon Todd Rundgren, best known for the soft-rock staple “I Saw the Light.”…

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