[SIGCIS-Members] Origin of "vector" in vector graphics

Bernard Geoghegan bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu
Thu Feb 25 09:03:31 PST 2021

Dear SIGCIS Members,

Thank you for this extraordinary inventory of suggestions, citations, and riffs on computer graphics. It’s so expansive I can hardly to justice to it yet, but I guess to summarise a few takeaways: There seem to be signs that “vector” airplanes dates from British usage back to WW2 or so, the earliest citation in displays seems to be from that 1958 Whirlwind manual cited by Guy, and it was at first glance the general appropriateness of the term that led to its invocation both for graphics and flight trajectories. The original coinage of the term “vector” for vector graphics, though, it seems is not crystal clear?

(I was delighted to see Sam reference Stuart Dreyfus mentioned as an interesting control and aeronautics theorist, given his other ties to the computing through his brother Hubert. Another example of the wealth of layering associations at work in many of these technologies and concepts.)

I’m going to try not to dive down a rabbit hole of vectorology, now, but with all these citations and technologies I hadn’t previously considered, I may just succumb to that “line of flight.”

Thank you again, for the inspiring wealth of thoughts!

Best, Bernard

From: Sam Kellogg <samkellogg at gmail.com>
Date: Thursday, 25 February 2021 at 00:20
To: Rory Solomon <solomonr at newschool.edu>
Cc: Bernard Geoghegan <bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu>, members at sigcis.org <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Origin of "vector" in vector graphics
Hello Bernard, all,

Likewise enjoying eavesdropping on this thread! Perhaps this is already on everyone's radar (more bad puns) but Michael J. Crowe's book A History of Vector Analysis: The Evolution of the Idea of a Vectorial System is a challenging and thorough work in the history of math; while it doesn't get into graphics (or even digital computers) as far as I recall, it'd be a good place to turn on the notion of the vector itself.

You might also take a look at this paper by Arthur Bryson, Walter Denham, and Stuart Dryfus (control theorists working in aeronautics in the 1960's), which I was looking at in the context of the history of optimization. Again, maybe not directly relevant, but this was in an aeronautics journal, I know for certain they were making extensive use of computers at the time, and "vectors" are everywhere, so perhaps you are on to something?
Bryson, Arthur E., Walter F. Denham, and Stuart E. Dreyfus. “Optimal Programming Problems with Inequality Constraints I: Necessary Conditions for Extremal Solutions.” AIAA Journal 1, no. 11 (1963): 2544–50. https://doi.org/10.2514/3.2107.

For what its worth, I started digging into Bryson and Denham's work for a forthcoming essay on the history of metaphors used to describe gradient optimization—happy to share some of that off-list.

All best,

On Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 4:23 PM Rory Solomon <solomonr at newschool.edu<mailto:solomonr at newschool.edu>> wrote:
Hi Bernie,

This might be slightly *ahem* orthogonal to the question of vector graphics, but depending how widely you wish to dilate your sense of "vector" here, it might make sense to also consider two other tangentially-related senses: the vector data structure, and the vector CPU.

In some programming language contexts, the array data structure for holding a list of values was typically created of a fixed size. If the programmer wanted to grow the size of a list of numbers, memory management techniques would have to be utilized to find and allocate additional storage space. The idea of the vector data structure was a dynamically-sized array capable of doing that memory management, in a sense, automatically, hiding those implementation details from the programmer. This behavior has become the norm in most high-level programming languages, so I think the term vector in this sense is mostly obsolete. But I've always wondered about the origins of this term for this data structure. My best guess is that a vector data structure could be evocative of a mathematical vector in the sense that it can grow, or, scale – like how the magnitude of a mathematical vector can be increased when multiplied by a scalar. It doesn't strike me as an obvious coinage to use for this concept, so I wonder if maybe there is some link in which early developers of the vector data structure for some reason or another had the mathematical concept of the vector fresh in the mind and ready to deploy as a metaphor.

In a somewhat related sense, the vector CPU was a technique in parallel processing whereby machine instructions, instead of specifying a single memory location to operate on, would specify a memory location and a quantity, corresponding to the number of adjacent values in memory on which to execute the given operation. The idea here was that loading values into registers to operate on from memory became a bottleneck, so if algorithms could be coded such that machine instructions could operate on many contiguous values at once, those values could all be pre-loaded into registers at once, instead of having to go to memory for each instruction. My guess is that the term "vector" pertains here because a vector-based machine instruction would include not just a memory location, but a memory location and the number of contiguous values to operate on – metaphorically evoking the way that a mathematical vector is often represented by two values: a direction and a magnitude. Again, it does not seem like a particularly obvious term to apply, so I wonder if there is some reason why this is the one that developers decided to use.

I'm enjoying all the discussion on this thread!


Rory Solomon, PhD (he / him)
Assistant Professor & Director of Code as a Liberal Art
Eugene Lang College, The New School
solomonr at newschool.edu<mailto:solomonr at newschool.edu> | @rorys

On Sat, Feb 20, 2021 at 3:27 AM Bernard Geoghegan <bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu<mailto:bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu>> wrote:

Can anyone advise on the origin of the term “vector graphics.”

Clearly, it literally describes a production of “vectors” on the screen by a concrete line-drawing technology. However, I’m wondering if there were multiple senses in that term initially. Specifically, looking through SAGE documentation from the 1950s and 1960s, esp, accounts of if operator displays, “vector” describes the physical trajectory of planes on the display. As SAGE was also a key source for early graphical interfaces, I’m wondering of the term “vector graphics” had a double connotation, as an analogy between the flight paths and the manner of illustrating graphics.

It’s not earth shaking, but it’s etymologically neat-o if one can trace “vector graphics” to multiple connotations at its coinage.

Best, b

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Sam P. Kellogg
he/him // MCC, NYU<http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/mcc/> // samkellogg.com<http://samkellogg.com>
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