Until the mid 1980's, it was all hand drawing. On a variety of media, from Sepia, to MyLar to tracing paper. Plastic lead on Mylar was more common. Graphite lead (tracing paper and Sepia) were less common.
Beginning in the mid 1980's came a string of handjob vendor initiatives to suck revenue from the U.S. Navy by convincing them to buy main-frame-ish (read: mini-frame or "workstation") products from the likes of Computervision CADDS 4x, then a blur of products like Intergraph VDS (and EMS, PDU/PDM), then Pro/Engineer, and Calma, AutoTrol, Cadence, CADAM, Unigraphics, and the list goes on. As each vendor was tried and discarded, the Navy, as well as legions of contractors gradually amassed piles of dusty hardware in dark closets or storage rooms. Your tax money hard at work, of course. Here's a fantastic blog post on Computervision from former employees by the way.
Then in walks AutoCAD. Cheap as hell and robust enough to get routine chores done. But more importantly: It was not only customizable, but there were NO royalties on your customization efforts. They were essentially public domain or privately-licenseable, your choice. Damn!
Let's see, hmmm, a workstation with Intergraph or CADDS 4X for roughly $50,000 (not including maintenance and support or training), or .... AutoCAD on a 386DX PC for a grand total of about $1000 and no required maintenance or support or training (books were, and are, readily available at any library or bookstore). The writing was on the wall.
Those other vendors are still around, well, some are. There are still repositories of data out there hidden in cracks that still require keeping that dinosaur crap around to access it. But the vast majority of electronic design work done for the U.S. Navy is now done with AutoCAD or other Autodesk products, on fairly average PC hardware running Windows. After all, there are no respectable CAD products for OSX or Linux at this point. Lot's of me-too and wannabee trash, which is still surprising to me.
I didn't get to go directly from the UNIX CAD world to the AutoCAD PC world easily. The manager of the CAD department was a complete ASS and hated me to death. Everytime I would ask to try it out he would blow a gasket. Roid rage central. I could cite more examples, but who cares, he retired and sailed his boat out into the ocean somewhere, never to be heard from again. I ended up buying a few books, training myself and staying after hours to sneak into the PC room to get experience firsthand. After a month of showing others how to find shortcuts, menu items, features, and customize their environment, he finally relented and asked me to come over. He was still an ASS though. >:(
After a year or two, I became enthralled in the programming aspects and that became my entire world for the next 15 years. LISP, DCL, plot scripts, menu files (MNU) and custom icons, slides and slidelibraries, DIESEL macros, and external scripts for batch plotting. You name it, I was hooked. I stayed with that to write many apps for AutoCAD, for work and for fun. I wrote a book too, but it was never published. I still believe firmly that LISP is superior in many ways to Java and .NET, even PHP, VBScript and Powershell. Enough of that jabbering. Oh well, good times indeed.
Some years ago, Autodesk shifted from a 24-month product refresh window to an 18-month cycle, and is now on a 12-month cycle. The vestiges of the Carol Bartz leadership days at Autodesk. A royal pain for enterprise customers, but great for dope-smoking marketing pukes that need to maintain their self-worth in the face of shrinking revenue streams.
AutoCAD 2009 has been out for about a year now, and soon we'll see AutoCAD 2010. In software engineering versioning terms, that's Release 17.3 or (maybe) Release 18. I'm still not sure which number it will get just yet. Heidi Hewitt posted a very nice blog article about the features she likes best (PDF download also). I have my picks as well, like the PDF export, PDF underlay, Purge improvements, Online Licensing transfers and a few others. The 3D stuff doesn't excite me because I've always felt that if you want to do proper 3D, do it with Inventor (or 3D Studio Max, if you need cool animation). So AutoCAD 3D to me is like putting a 427 hemi into a VW bug. Cute, but not practical. The net result is just what the dope-smoking marketing pukes ordered: Higher unit pricing and more revenues. Good luck! At almost $5,000 per license (non-major account schedules) that's a very tough sell in the face of a shrinking economy and risk of layoffs. Good luck indeed!
Subscription customers with active contracts will almost certainly consider it carefully. The features are enticing. The capabilities are impressive, but customers are going to be more pragmatic this year than at any time over the past ten years. It will be interesting to see the quarterly financial call results after Q3.