A Brief History of the AutoCAD Commandline

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How many of us can remember the days of drafting with set-square and tee-square and split-nib Indian-ink pens? 

In those times drafting was reserved for the especially skilled and often the drawing was mistaken as the end rather than the means. 

With the later introduction of drafting machines and Rapidograph pens, almost anyone could now draw and the separate profession of drafting became almost redundant.

Then in the eighties came CAD, the new revolution that along with mechanical plotters never failed to entrance even the most seasoned of us. 

We would watch with irresistible fascination as objects were arrayed across the screen or as pens changing automatically would dodge back and forth across the paper in what seemed a demented and uncoordinated way until the plot was completed.  We would now be enabled to devote our entire attention to the design rather than the drawing. Unfortunately not true. 

For a few more years yet the less privileged of us would watch in admiration and awe as the new super-race of CAD technicians worked in their darkened rooms on faint green screens squinting at spindly lines representing a bridge or some highway structure. (Yes engineers got there first).  We stared in admiration and amazement as the operator would zoom in and out and pan around the screen.  This was to be the new age of drafting but at that moment it seemed as far from the realms of every-day drafting as winning a lottery jackpot.  (Were there jackpots in those days?).

Then came AutoCAD, a simple computer-drafting program that would run on those new PCs that everyone was talking about.  Although expensive, AutoCAD and PCs were nothing like as costly as the fantastically expensive pride generating professional programs and workstations that preceded them.  CAD became affordable by any practice willing to take the risk. Of course the established CAD industry would, out of self-interest, rubbish these “new toys”, but new toys they were not.  Virtually from its first beginnings AutoCAD was a useful drafting tool that provided a new challenge that in turn encouraged a new breed of drafters who could now work with amazing precision and visual clarity and flourish new skills not available to their seniors. 

For a while at least, many employers were again at the mercy of their drafters. Within a few years, and not too few business disasters later, drawing boards and traditional tools became virtually redundant for technical drawing along with those who could not adapt to the new intelligence.  Slowly however designers themselves took up the new tool and once again the separate profession of drafting was on the wane. CAD is now the default method of technical drawing and design skill and technical knowledge is once again the primary selection criterion for choosing professional support staff.

The first releases of AutoCAD depended on typed input at the Command: prompt but soon sported a rudimentary mouse selectable Side-bar menu system.  Soon however, like every other software package, AutoCAD focused on appealing to new users rather than the experienced and progressively developed cascading and icon menus from which to select commands and options.  Although now catchily called Ribbon Menus the principle is still the same – progressive mouse picks through an ever expanding collection of menu options; excellent for learners but painfully slow for experienced professional users.

The great thing about AutoCAD is that unlike later imitators it has never forsaken the original keyboard Command-line.  Autodesk also used two other brilliant strategies.  Firstly they published a drawing exchange format (DXF) available to all programmers without restriction that in consequence became an industry standard and secondly and most importantly they built in Autolisp; a very flexible and easy to use method of customizing the user interface and increasing functionality.

What is the significance of discussing AutoCAD’s history?   Well! It is to give us an insight into and an answer to the question of “Keyboard v Menus”. AutoCAD is still the most easily and thoroughly customizable and hence most flexible program on the market and fortunately due to the availability of its Command line input also provides the fastest user interface.  “Hold on” you say; “Aren’t the mouse and menus much faster than typing laboriously at the keyboard?” There is a common and mistaken belief that menus are the fastest way to communicate with a computer but if you ask really experienced drafters if they would prefer a keyboard shortcut to picking through cascading menus to execute commands they will say keyboard every time.

Mind-to-hand coordination of touch-typing is more efficient than the mind-to-eye then eye-to-mind then mind-to-hand coordination required for the use of a mouse and screen menus.  Even if this were not true, sequential picking with a mouse could never match the almost intuitive flow of ten fingers on a keyboard executing commands virtually coincident with thinking about them.  (Could a pianist play a sonata one finger at a time?) Menus, like multiple-choice questions, can be helpful for the casual user or beginner, but when a command or option is already known there is no point delaying its input by hiding it among irrelevant cascading menu options. 

If for no other reason, the banishment of the sheer visual confusion and the waste of space created by multiple screen menus is justification enough for using the keyboard in preference to abstract hard to understand and hard to visually distinguish pictograms.  Skilled touch typists can compete even if they have to type the full command name and command options but add to this the replacement of long command names by one or two keystroke shortcuts and we are communicating with AutoCAD in the fastest most efficient way possible. If you can define sufficient short command aliases, keyboard shortcuts easily outpace command access via menus. Long-live modern language in preference to ancient hieroglyphs and a pointy stick. Let me make it clear, however,that I am not discarding AutoCAD menus, palettes, wizards or dialogues. Many complex and seldom used commands would be difficult to execute without them. 

What I am suggesting is that commands that are used repeatedly; during a drawing session such as LINE, COPY, ERASE etc. should be accessed and executed with keyboard shortcuts whereas complex commands such as PLOT, OPTIONS, SHEETSET etc. although initiated by keyboard shortcuts may be better executed via dialogues.(wizards) etc.

Putting aside the discussion of a balanced use of aliases and menus it is the keyboard Command: line and Autolisp that keeps AutoCAD at the forefront. AutoCAD is a brilliant program that has been continuously improved since its birth.  One of the first and most enduring upgrades was the addition of Autolisp that in a single stroke turned a good program into a major customizable professional tool.  AutoCAD became the program of preference virtually overnight.  Since then many useful improvements have been made in performance and functionality. 

However, many improvements have gone well beyond the interests of the average day-to-day requirements of 2D drafting and with the exception of Windows few of the “improvements” have actually improved the user interface.  Every professional user should at least be using AutoCAD Aliases (keyboard shortcuts) and avoiding, where possible, screen-space consuming, slow to use icons, but command customization is the key to real efficiency. 

There are literally thousands of Autolisp mini-programs available on the web and most of them are FREE, but as useful as they are, they are uncoordinated and difficult to find what you want when you want it.  Few if any resources have made an attempt to coordinate these programs or improve AutoCAD’s user interface.  CADUSERINTERFACE.COM and ACADUI seeks to change that. For approximately twenty-five years the authors of ACADUI have been developing, collecting and testing Autolisp improvements to AutoCAD for their own use and have integrated hundreds of useful functions with their own custom functions and a unique high speed user interface that has revolutionized the use of AutoCAD.