From Unisurf to Adobe




Fig. 6 and Fig. 5 extracted from: Le Bulletin de la Section d’Histoire des Usines Renault1

Sadly, we don't know much about UNISURF the tool of all tools Pierre Bézier made, except from the fact that it was developed at Renault in 1968. After a lengthy process it only entered production use seven years later, in 1975. In 1999, Bézier wrote to Rabut:

In the end, the positive ideas that have guided me and of which I am not sole owner are, in short, the following: 1. Do not try to make a copy of a 2D or 3D object or improve an existing method. 2. Choose a parametric polynomial representation, allowing the shape of a curve or of several surfaces to be modified by letting only their reference frame vary. 3. Represent a reference frame by putting end-to-end its unit-vectors instead of giving them a common origin.2

Pierre Bézier's research could almost have been lost to a small group of users in the niche automotive industry designers. Thankfully, a few years later, a group of developers linked to Apple Computer, Inc. were creating a language designed to handle the laser printer soon to be sold along side their computers. The quest was to find the best way to mathematically define a curves, to make them scalable and for them to outdo scanned images.

In 1976, while Warnock worked at Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City-based computer graphics company, the concepts of the PostScript language were seeded. Prior to co-founding Adobe, with Geschke and Putman, Warnock worked with Geschke at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), where he had started in 1978. Unable to convince Xerox management of the approach to commercialize the InterPress graphics language for controlling printing, he, together with Geschke and Putman, left Xerox to start Adobe in 1982. At their new company, they developed an equivalent technology, PostScript, from scratch, and brought it to market for Apple's LaserWriter in 1985.3

Still from the VHS tape shipped with Illustrator 1 where Warnock is making a demo of drawing a vector pseudo-Lichtenstein4

It seems that the efficiency of Bézier curves to run on a relatively small computational footprint was what made it a favorite for their use as curve model for PostScript. Quite quickly, the language became the moneybox for the multinational because every printmaker needed to pay a licence fee for it. Meanwhile Warnock began what Adobe developer had called a “pet project”. Motivated by the illustrating practice of his wife Warva, he began to develop the eponymous software Illustrator. The tool that Warnock developed for illustrator and which popularised the work of Bézier was simply called ‘pen’. The front-to-back processes that it proposes to draw curves, that we described in the Carrying over item, are still in use by many designers today without having been really discussed and without being challenged by any newer software since.

  1. Le Bulletin de la Section d’Histoire des Usines Renault, tome 5, Juin 1985, N°30, 272-283. With the kind authorization of the Section d’Histoire des Usines Renault - (document may not be reproduced without the authorization of the Section d’Histoire des Usines Renault) 

  2. Two letters written by Pierre Bézier to Christophe Rabut, November 1999 [] 

  3. John Warnock is an American computer scientist and businessman best known as the co-founder with Charles Geschke of Adobe Systems Inc. 

  4. See