Silicon Graphics: The Foundations of Modern 3D Graphics

Founding and Formative Years

Silicon Graphics (SGI) was formed in 1982 when Jim Clark who was then under a 4-year appointment as computer science professor at Stanford University, banded together Kurt Akeley, Tom Davis, Mark Grossman, Herb Kuta, Rocky Rhodes, Marc Hannah, and Dave Brown, a few of his collegues and undergraduates. The foundation for the new company was something that Clark had created at Stanford, and called the Geometry Engine (U.S. Patent # 4,449,201) which used multiple processors in order to allow real-time 3D graphics animation.

Originally housed in Stanford's Electronic Research Lab, a year after its creation, it released its first system the IRIS 1000. However, sales in the first few years were less than stellar. Clark spent almost 5 years trying to convince companies, like Boeing, and many Hollywood studios how SGI's technology would benefit them. Sales rose fast once the inital stigma wore off, as many engineers, artists, and designers realized the potential in the new ablity to create models, animations, etc. on their computers and be able to navigate through them in real-time.

In 1984, venture capitalist Glenn Muller of Mayfield Funds brought in former Hewlett-Packard vice president, Ed McCracken in as CEO of which Jim Clark was vehemently opposed as they were polar opposites in their ways and learned to dispise each other (It became so bitter that McCracken had Muller lower Clark's pay, and refused him raises.). It also did not help that Muller had exploited Clark's business naïvete and taken a 25% share in the company for a mear $800,000 earlier. Al of this would remain firmly etched in Clark's mind.

Despite growing personal issues within the management of SGI, the company had a wildly successful IPO in 1986 that had economists calling SGI, "the new Apple."

Hollywood and SGI

Early on, many people in Hollywood, such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas realized the movie potental that SGI systems held, and many movies in the late 1980s were starting to use computer graphics. However, the most famous of all early SGI-aided movies was Jurassic Park where SGI systems were shown in the movie. Some other uses of SGI systems are made in subtler ways, for example, in Forrest Gump, SGIs were used heavily for video editing and such moments as Forrest meeting JFK that look as if they were really from the 1960s. Other major films that have used SGI systems are Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Terminator 2, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, and Gladiator.

With all this usage, it is not suprising that a good 15%-20% of the company's gross revenue comes from Hollywood studios. However, many companies are now opting for Linux based systems so it is interesting as to what the future will hold for SGI in the movie industry.

The Rise and Fall of SGI

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s were the glory years for SGI. They were the company that everyone in Silicon Valley either wanted to work at, or simply envied. SGI had bought out their RISC chip maker, MIPS Computer Systems in 1992 only 5 years after swtiching from their Motorola based systems to MIPS and had released the now ubiquious OpenGL API. However, Clark realized something that none of the managment never grasped until it was already too late, the fast growing PC industry would eventually put SGIs high-end workstation market into a corner. It took extreme difficutly for Clark to convince McCracken and others to build their wildly successful desktop machines, and in the end, Clark, tired of the inablity to control his company resigned as chairman on February 28th, 1994 to the relief of SGI's management who abhored his "creative distruction" or killing what appeared to be a prefectly profitable market in order to go after a risky new one.

Shortly after Clark left, the company bought out Cray in order to aquire their supercomputing technology (December 2001-January 2002, Seattle based Tera bought Cray). The move was not the best for certain parts of SGI, especially the IRIX development team who had to get it to run on Crays and the MIPS based systems, this was hampered by a lack of teamwork between the IRIX and Cray departments.

By the late-1990s SGI faced an uncertain future as it was unable to keep up with a fast growing new market, the personal computer industry. McCraken, incapable of stopping SGI's rapidly falling stock price, and it's slow withdraw into a mainly nitch market was fired from the company in September of 1997 and replaced by another Hewlett-Parkard executive, "Rocket" Rick Belluzzo who did wonders at Hewlett-Packard and was hoped to do the same for SGI. Instead, Rick did much to the opposite, although during his term, there was a slight growth in revenue, he divested the embedded market portion of the MIPS Group in SGI, remade the corporate identity to the annoyance of many (Note: As of September 2002, the cube is back!), and introducted the Visual Workstation line of Windows NT based Intel systems (Discontinued in 2001). His arrival also started rounds of layoffs, many of them going to NVIDIA which was sued because their designs were so similar to SGI's. His stay also marked the forced acceptance of much of Hewlett-Packard's culture to replace SGI's.

Belluzo resigned in September 1999 and became Microsoft's chief operating officer in the same month. His replacement was the head of SGI's European sales since 1985, Robert R. Bishop, when the European offices opened.


SGI has shared the fate of so many start-ups, just like Netscape and Apple they rode high for many years only to sink down suddenly. Clark had a lot to do with SGI's success, and if the company's old bureaucratic managment had listend to his ideas the future of SGI may have been a very different story. Apple had a similar fate, but Steve Jobs was allowed to reinvented his company's image after being forced out by issues similar to Clark and McCracken. However, it is unlikely that Jim Clark will do the same for his first company, but SGI still remains viable, and still controls much of the graphics industry (Although a January 2002 sell of 3 graphics patents to Microsoft is dubious, especially with the OpenGL patent claim that followed in July) and they also own the industry standard graphics API, OpenGL. So, although faint, SGI still has the potential of attaining some of their former glory.

Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story

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