Forget mousing around when working up your masterpiece – in 1987 Wacom set digital artists free with its SD series graphics tablet.

For the fledgling computer graphics user back in 1986, the only real, practical way to make digital art involved mousing around Apple’s GUI interface – a situation that rebels against the traditional brush-stroke approach the pen and paper provided.

In 1987, that all changed. A Japanese company, Wacom, which had been founded four-years previously, made a breakthrough in its quest to deliver an input device that worked exactly like using a brush on canvas in the physical world. It launched the SD series, the first graphics tablet to feature a cordless, battery-free, pressure-sensitive pen. And, overnight, digital illustrators were set free.

Its main advantage was its simplicity – it offered a far more natural way to create graphical marks in a software package compared to a mouse, and the addition of pressure sensitivity was a godsend. Now, the software was able to respond to how hard the user pressed on the tablet to vary the width and density of a line drawn on-screen.

The result: natural, freeform graphics that even found a space in the technical illustration world, as it enabled artwork to be placed over the surface of the tablet for tracing without interfering with it working.

Even more significantly, it was the final piece in the technological puzzle that meant artists who used to scoff at digital art now saw it as a medium that their skills could be used in. Wacom was on to a winner, and since the SD’s launch, the company has released many updates, and has sold over two million tablets.

And, while the SD series wasn’t the first tablet – the Apple II featured the Koala Pad, which also worked with the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit family – it was the first to offer pressure sensitivity and a lightweight pen.

The graphics tablet hasn’t stood still, either. Fastforward to 1995 and Wacom broke the mould again with the UltraPad – the first tablet and pen to feature an eraser. This was quickly followed up in 1997 with PenTools – a collection of tilt and pressure-sensitive plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop. One year later in 1998, the Intuos tablet was introduced – including the first digital airbrush, extending the naturalistic tools available to the digital artist.

Since then, Wacom has expanded into new territory, with the release of its LCD-based Cintiq, which overcame the final hurdle – the ability to draw directly onto the computer screen in a natural way. While Wacom had been creating LCD tablets since 1992 in the shape of the PL-100V, it was the release of the Cintiq 15X that brought them to the mainstream graphics market.

The humble SD series was finally discontinued by Wacom in 2001 – an end of an era – but its remit lives on in the new generation of TabletPCs (Wacom even supplies the cordless pens), which essentially force an entire computer into a graphics tablet. The SD didn’t quite kill the mouse, but it set the bar for artistic digital interfaces since 1987.

How it works

Wacom didn’t just set designers free from being tethered to the desktop with the SD series, it was also the first graphics tablet to feature pressure sensitivity – the real Holy Grail for digital artists.

Using what’s called Electro-Magnetic Resonance (EMR), the componentless tablet provides a mixture of overlapping antenna coils in both X and Y directions. The pen completes a circuit as it is tracked over the surface, and cleverly only detects a ‘pen-down’ signal when pressure is applied to the pen tip.

Depending on the technology in the pen, up to 1,024 levels of pressure can be detected, although the first SD tablet could only manage a then-impressive 256 levels.

A smart switching device in the pen can detect when it is turned over, adding the later eraser feature, and then pen tilt features. So, now you know.