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The Fascinating Story of How Autodesk Came to Be (Part 1)

Autodesk has been around since the early 80s when John Walker and some of his programmer friends founded it as a small company based on their original product, AutoCAD, an early Computer Aided Design program acquired from programmer Michael Riddle. It's Riddle's early innovations that set the ball rolling, and it's worth a look back to see how it all began.

Riddle, seen in his lab in Arizona, above (photo courtesy of the DigiBarn Museum), developed his first CAD program in the 70s. He didn't like it, so he started over. He worked on a 16-bit processor with 64k of addressable space. The operating system took up 48K. Think about that kind of genius for a moment: he was able to write his own high-level language compiler (SPL: System's Programing Language) when existing ones didn't suit his needs. {C}His first CAD program was actually an interpreter; and we're talking 2D, at first. He dumped that one and started over, designing an interactive system. Riddle started development in 1977 and worked on it for two years, getting his Computer Aided Design system operational by 1979. It ran on an old F100-L bus machine with an amazing 16-bit wide memory when most machines were only 8-bit wide. (Now, desktops are 64-bit wide and are able to address billions of bytes of memory). The problem was his CAD program needed to process more individual entities than the machine could handle all at once, so Riddle developed an innovative method of swapping parts of the problem in and out, to be worked on and combined until the solution was derived.

Being a strong believer in Moore's law, Riddle says he knew that eventually we'd have enough computing power to handle his ultimate goal, remarkably visionary at the time. His stated goal was: “To render full photorealistic, picture-perfect scenes from floating point models of reasonable complexity in 1/30th of a second.” At the time that was thought by many to be a ridiculous goal. (By way of comparison: In the early 80s programmer David Buck was able to ray-trace a 640×480 semi-realistic image in 6 or 7 hours on the precursor to POV-Ray). Today Riddle's dream is almost achievable on a desktop. This original CAD system was called “Interact” and Riddle sold about 30 of them. He was clearly not a business man and certainly not a salesman.

Riddle was introduced to John Walker by the guy who'd built his computer. After Riddle's presentation, Walker was interested in acquiring AutoCAD for $8,000, but Riddle wanted a whopping $15,000 (at least he saw opportunities when they arrived). In addition, Riddle wanted to retain the right to develop competing products in case Walker wasn't able to properly shepherd AutoCAD's development to its full potential. They apparently haggled to a near impasse. Walker didn't know if AutoCAD would go anywhere. However, Walker had heard good things about Riddle and believed in AutoCAD so much that he said he would take on all the risk.

Michael Riddle didn't believe in lawyers at the time, and decided he'd be willing to sell Walker AutoCAD for a dollar, plus 10% of the profit from the sales of AutoCAD and any products that were derivative of it. At the time that seemed like a reasonable deal to both men. As Walker has said elsewhere, "[We knew it would be an] inherently an expensive product — even if we gave it away it would be expensive, because at that epoch graphics boards with a reasonable resolution and digitizers were very high-end products, you just couldn't buy them cheaply. Most computers didn't have mice — there wasn't any graphic pointing device at all; it was a battle even to be able to get a pointer on the screen. So that meant the hardware configuration was going to be expensive, and that again was going to reduce the size of your market."

Part of Riddle's motivation with the royalty deal was that he'd developed an electronic guitar tuner that he'd sold the rights to for $10,000 and it quickly grew into a major product with millions in sales all over the world. He got no residuals. He claims that he didn't feel cheated. That was what he'd asked for…but he decided to take a risk for a percentage of what might be a valuable application, hoping that he'd get even more than the original $15,000 he'd asked for. He decided to trust Walker to develop Interact (the core of AutoCAD) into a major application. He eventually ended up with a lot more than that.

Walker then went up to Marin County and gathered a crew of brilliant programmers, including Riddle, and formed Autodesk. He renamed Interact to AutoCAD. Riddle says they ported AutoCAD to the Victor 9000, one of the very early graphics capable computers based on the famous Intel 8086 16 bit processor. As an aside, the original IBM PC was based on an 8-bit version of the 8086, the 8088.

Riddle says he admired John Walker's ability to wrangle programmers and create a business that worked. Riddle admitted recently, “I could never have done that. I was kind of a flake.” There's a lot more to this part of the story but there is also some disagreement about what ensued. Suffice it to say that AutoCAD started to sell and Riddle did okay on the deal.

To make a complex story short, Autodesk's sales grew to over $100,000,000 by 1989 after only four years in operation as a company. There was more confusing legal haggling, and Riddle eventually sold his royalty rights to Autodesk for $11,875,000 in January 1992, dropping a lawsuit against the company (guess he found at least one lawyer useful). That beats the hell out of $8,000 any way you look at it, though it was still less than 10% of AutoCAD's total profits, which only continued to multiply, at the time of the deal in the early 90s. Bravo Mike.

There is more meat to this story. Learn more about John Walker and where he took AutoCAD, and Autodesk, in Part 2.

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