The 1970s Graphics Program That Spurred Space Exploration, Computer Picassos and Pixar

SuperPaint is the grandfather of all digital paint programs.

Just ten years after man landed on the moon, NASA’s chief planetary investigators focused their sights on Earth’s celestial twin. The 1978 Pioneer Venus Project was an ambitious area recognisance mission that provided the first topographic map of the Venusian surface. It also gave greater insight into the planet’s magnetic field, atmosphere, and its volatile ballet with interstellar forces. Suffice it to say, Venus turned out to be no Boca Raton.

Though the endeavor did not possess the red carpet draw of a lunar landing, it improved scientists’ understanding of foreign bodies. Something that should prove astronomically beneficial when we’re setting up house on other planets.

Mercator projection of topographic map of Venus. (NASA)

But 1978 hadn’t just introduced the world to the hellish, alien terrain of Venus. Unbeknownst to most, it would also inconspicuously unveil another foreign entity to the eyes of the public: an 8-bit universe known as SuperPaint.

First conceptualized in 1972, SuperPaint is the grandfather of all digital paint programs. Like the Pioneer Venus Orbiter and Pioneer Venus Multiprobe―the two spacecraft that made up the Venus Project―SuperPaint was a pioneer in an unheralded arena. Devised by Richard Shoup, SuperPaint was used extensively during the aforementioned NASA mission to help illustrate key discoveries and data.

SuperPaint rendering of key Pioneer Venus spacecraft movements by artist Damon Rarey.

The program supplied visualizations of scientific experiments that had been conducted aboard the spacecraft. It provided a live video feed to the press that could only be accessed at NASA’s Ames Research Center. And SuperPaint also had the capabilities to provide basic graphics and animation that could be used by television networks to help explain complex concepts―as seen in the image above.

Yet, despite the program’s revolutionary and manifold contributions, SuperPaint would get scrapped by its development company, Xerox PARC, just a year later, forcing Shoup to leave and found his own graphics company, Aurora Systems. But his dedicated work, for which he received a technical Academy Award in 1998, had already established the groundwork for today’s most sophisticated digital toolkits. Without SuperPaint, there might never have been an Adobe Photoshop, a Final Cut Pro, or a Pixar Animation Studios.

It all began when Berkeley Computer Corporation (BCC) went bankrupt. Richard Shoup had been working there after obtaining a PhD in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University and, along with some of the time’s greatest minds, emigrated to Xerox PARC after the 1969-70 recession grounded BCC. Xerox Corporation had a knack for attracting engineering's most promising recruits, collecting them in a division operating under information technology and hardware systems pursuits. The Palo Alto Research Center, dubbed PARC, was a brain trust that helped spur a technological revolution. From its confines, the laser printer, personal computer, and computer graphical interface (something the Internet would not be possible without) would be erected

Shoup was a bit of a recluse at PARC, but his eagle-eyed focus allowed him to conceptualize SuperPaint within two years of joining Xerox. In April of 1973, the video graphics system had achieved its first stable image (shown below).

Shoup holding a notecard that reads, “It works! (sort of).”

At the moment of capture, SuperPaint’s interface was still not operational, so Shoup had to secure the image with some technical mastery. Pulling a clip lead (one of the wires pictured below) caused the system to take a video signal of Shoup, which was then converted into an 8-bit graphical representation of his visage. He had pulled off magic with computer chips.

Close-up of SuperPaint’s back panel. (Richard Shoup) 

With some additional touch-ups, Shoup made history by using solely software and customized hardware to take a picture of himself.

Amazingly, and perhaps a little ironically, Shoup used only pencil and paper to dream up the hardware required for SuperPaint. Once constructed, the skeleton of hardware that housed SuperPaint’s brain ended up being five feet tall (and now resides at the Computer History Museum). 

The SuperPaint rack.

At the top is an expensive 8-bit video digitizer, which sits on a collection of fans, themselves propped over its image memory system, or, frame buffer. Eventually the entire system would end up as two five-foot tall racks.

Image courtesy of Richard Shoup.

Afterward, color tables, control cards, and a display interface that would allow even inexperienced users to master painting via computer in just a few tries were added.

(The resulting workstation is pictured at the very top of this piece; and a basic overview of the eventual system processes can be seen below).

SuperPaint system block diagram. (Richard Shoup)

Most of the software was Shoup’s creation, but a good portion was provided by associates Larry Clark, Bob Flegal, Patrick Baudelaire and Alvy Ray Smith, who would eventually become Pixar’s co-founder.

Complete with features like adjustable paintbrushes, image file transfer abilities, and image magnification, SuperPaint’s menu was the standard-bearer for a long line of user-defined paint application programs. Think MS Paint or MacPaint.

The ability to create full color images with only a computer is what drew Alvy Ray Smith to work with Shoup at Xerox PARC. A recent transplant to California, Smith watched as his longtime friend harnessed the powers of SuperPaint to convert images of his girlfriend into “a kaleidoscope of [digital] colors,” and to modify existing Star Trek episodes with psychedelic palettes.

He was also astounded by the early images produced by resident artist and PARC night guard Fritz Fisher, and program associate Bob Flegal.

Black Girl. (Fritz Fisher)

After Xerox canned the promising SuperPaint initiative―the corporation would later develop a track record of shelving revolutionary innovations―Smith would move on to other creative opportunities. Still mesmerized by SuperPaint’s promise, he found himself working for millionaire Alex Schure at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Shure had just purchased software and equipment inline with SuperPaint’s frame.

Using his experience creating computer animations on SuperPaint, Smith partnered with Ed Catmull, who was also an employee of Schure and who had made the first computer generated film. The two would eventually pitch their talents to George Lucas, as they thought he would be receptive in using computer graphics for his Star Wars saga.

A digital model of an X-Wing fighter provided by Triple-I, a computer company, had convinced Lucas that he could one day use computer effects in films.

Smith and Catmull would convince Lucas to let them lead the newly formed Lucas Computer Division, which was a stepping stone in the creation of Pixar Animation Studios.

Though SuperPaint and Richard Shoup are not widely known beyond the innermost circles of computer engineers, they allowed modern man to reach far beyond Venusian real estate. SuperPaint’s pixelated creations have the simplicity of caveman paintings when given a 2013 context, but our modern structures of creativity would be as rooted in fantasy as landing on the moon was two generations ago.