It's well known the X11 is capable of displaying a program's graphics output remotely.

I checked the source code of the earliest version of X I found (X10R3, from 1986), and I found that this version was also capable of doing this (I checked XOpenDisplay(), and it uses BSD sockets, so it must have supported remote displaying).

I wonder, was X1 (from 1984) capable of doing the same? Or is there an even earlier system, which was capable of doing this?

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    X derives from W, and per Wikipedia, W used a network protocol, so presumably X version 1 could already support remote display. – another-dave Oct 1 '20 at 20:51
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    There are a couple of answers already on this site about the Imlac PDS-1 - 1970's era minicomputer used mostly as a graphics terminal. Also there were Tektronix storage tube displays. All these systems, including X in the early days, were not to redirect entire "desktop GUI"s - which didn't exist back then as we know them now! - but instead to provide graphical output to individual applications which were specifically programmed to do graphics that way. Remember, X was a protocol + library the application linked against - it wasn't a set of operating system APIs. – davidbak Oct 2 '20 at 3:57
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    In fact, the first "desktop GUIs" as we know them now were probably on Xerox lab machines that ran Smalltalk (or other Xerox-homebrew operating systems of that era). Smalltalk did include an integrated graphical/desktop environment as a crucial part of the system. – davidbak Oct 2 '20 at 3:58

I suppose what you are looking for are graphics terminals: systems that receive display instructions over a (relatively) slow connection, like a network or a serial line, and construct and display an image based on that information.

The earliest such graphics terminal I am aware of is the IBM 2250 from 1964, which connected to an IBM 360 mainframe. One such terminal cost around US$280k at the time, equivalent to $1.8m+ today, which might go some way to explain why we don't typically associate graphics terminals (or, in fact any kind of the CRT terminals, despite the 2260) with the 360 era, even though the technology was there.

Graphics terminals became more affordable in the 1970s. Two popular graphics terminals of that era include the include the DEC GT-42 mentioned by another-dave, and the storage tube based Tektronix 4010.


The PLATO system, starting with PLATO IV (1972), had 512x512 bitmap terminals that connected to a mainframe (CDC Cyber).

Many early iterations of graphical game genres (MUD, FPS, ...) were programmed on the PLATO IV system.

You can try out a PLATO IV system on an emulated CDC Cyber here, if you install the required terminal emulator.

  • Excellent! Thanks for remembering Plato! (And its weird orange-glowing terminals ...) – davidbak Oct 2 '20 at 16:48
  • @davidbak that weird orange glow was due to the use of Neon as the light emitting mechanism. I can't remember if the display would latch each pixel as it turned on, but it must have because backing storage in 1972 would have been prohibitive. – Mark Ransom Oct 2 '20 at 21:11
  • @MarkRansom The linked Wikipedia article actually says that is was a storage display (no framebuffer). And orange plasma displays were still used much later, for example in this Toshiba laptop, though this one had a framebuffer. – dirkt Oct 3 '20 at 4:38
  • @MarkRansom: I've long been curious about the use of neon for storage elements other than simple counters. I would think that if one could fabricate a "comb" out of nichrome or similar material it should be possible to make a display with a wire for each column and a comb for each row. Each row or column would use one high-voltage transistor and a bunch of diodes and resistors to control it; a fair bit of circuitry, but perhaps not unreasonable. – supercat Oct 4 '20 at 17:43
  • @supercat you probably know this, but you don't need to use neon for storage elements; a Williams tube uses phosphor. – dirkt Oct 4 '20 at 17:46

Back in the 1970s, you could run a program on a DECsystem-10 that would display graphics on a DEC GT-42 (which was basically a PDP 11/10 with a video display). The GT-42 was connected via serial link, probably 20mA loop, since it was several hundred yards away from the DECsystem-10.

Structurally, this is the same arrangement as an X-terminal (not xterm, that's a different thing altogether).

I recall using GINO-F on the DECsystem-10 for simple graphing applications. I also wrote a noughts-and-crosses game that used the GT42's light pen for interaction.


The way the question is worded, several answers are possible.

  • Is it about remote stations capable of displaying glaphical output?

    Then essentially every graphics terminal/display/workstation qualifies, which would make even the very fist graphical terminal, the IBM 2250 a valid answer. In fact, it would as well make any other graphic output device, like a plotter, fit.

  • Is it about remote stations running a (user supplied) program?

    Then again the 2250, but as well Postscript or alike drawing languages will qualify (not pure output specifications like HP-GL)

  • Is it about moving an otherwise local application remote?

    Then it's not about a graphics system like X, but applications using its interface

  • If it's about X?

    Well, then X and its earliest iteration is the answer, as the use of a network routable protocol layer is the core idea of X - or better, as another-dave reminds, already with its precursor W.

Bottom Line:

The question might need some refinement.

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    Wikipedia implies the W window system worked over the network, though if you're implying that 'routable' is a requirement, I can't answer that either way. I haven't managed to find a functioning link to more detaield W information. – another-dave Oct 2 '20 at 13:17
  • @another-dave Good point, while W wasn't really widespread, it does in fact pull the date forward. Routable in this context means that the remote station does not have a direct line to the host (running the application), but can be anywhere within the network. – Raffzahn Oct 2 '20 at 14:40
  • I found this paper about the V Graphic Terminal System, which was distributed. I don't know if this is what was also called W. I would guess not. – another-dave Oct 3 '20 at 1:28
  • @Raffzahn: surely you mean it would push the date further back? – Nick Matteo Oct 4 '20 at 18:08
  • @NickMatteo Hmm, I guess that's an issue where philosophies collide. :) – Raffzahn Oct 4 '20 at 19:21

Programs written in the PostScript graphics programming language (1984) typically ran on a Motorola 68000 CPU remotely from the host computer.

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