The usual thing today is a laptop (maybe desktop) PC (or Mac) connected to a video projector to display content from PowerPoint (or Keynote) slides. How was it done, in general, before this hardware and software was common in corporate offices and meeting rooms?

This is "Retrocomputing", so I'm asking about what computer software was commonly used to create the content, and how were computers involved in its production and/or presentation? (Or, did the corporate world just skip from whiteboards all the way to PowerPoint?...)


4 Answers 4


Apart from whiteboards, blackboards and paperboards, transparencies were quite common, both pre-printed and written/drawn as the presenter gave the presentation (which was quite a difficult technique to master, but very effective).

Transparencies could be prepared manually, or using word-processing software, or presentation software; under DOS, the dominant presentation tool was Harvard Graphics but there were quite a few others (notably Freelance Graphics). The Mac was used for this too; it had PowerPoint in 1987... Printing to transparencies was possible using special transparencies with laser printers and then inkjets.

Another common presentation technique was to prepare videos, and slideshows were quite often recorded on VHS tapes and projected using high quality VCRs and projectors (Barco etc.). As their name suggests they were also presented as 35mm slides.

There were also dedicated presentation computers, but as far as I’m aware they weren’t very popular. LGR came across a 1988 Kodak DisplayMaker and reviewed it, also briefly covering the more popular VideoShow system which was available in 1984. The DisplayMaker was an all-in-one system allowing users to create presentations and display them using a variety of outputs (to monitors, TVs or projectors); it could also grab still video frames.

Computer-driven projectors, and then laptops, changed the game, by making it possible for presentation software to be used to present the content as well as prepare it, but it took a long time for laptop-accessible projectors to become common (they were very expensive, bulky, noisy, and hard to maintain). There were some models of laptops whose screen back could be removed, so that they could be placed on a transparency projector, but the results weren’t great (such projectors didn’t have great levels of light output to start with, and adding an LCD screen didn’t help). Before laptops, there were specialised screens which could be used with transparency projectors; Kodak had one as early as 1986.

  • 5
    Slideshows were also conducted with actual slide projectors too, of course! :-)
    – ErikF
    Jul 5, 2018 at 17:07
  • 2
    Indeed, how could I have missed that! Jul 5, 2018 at 17:09
  • 1
    For high resolution text and drawings, blue Diazo slides and microfilms...
    – Grabul
    Jul 5, 2018 at 18:27
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    Don't forget using HP pen plotters to generate transparencies. Quite common in US and Europe from the early 1980's through the early 1990's.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 5, 2018 at 21:20
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    With the added bonus, for the system administrators who managed these (then) very expensive laser printers, that every so often someone would feed a regular transparency into the printer, which would melt and shrink wrap the fuser roller Jul 6, 2018 at 1:40

even whiteboards aren't that old...

In my experience, before computer projectors became commonplace, it was all analog -- transparencies with an overhead projector, or 35mm slides. (There was a brief period where you could buy LCD displays that sat on an overhead projector.) Content for those was generated in various old-fashioned ways, from hand-drawing to photographic reproduction to typesetting.

In the 1980s, once laser printers became widely accessible, it was common to print onto transparencies for presentations. You'd use the word processor or drawing program of your choice to generate the images, but you'd print them just as if you were printing to paper. In fact, a quick trip to Wikipedia indicates that early versions of PowerPoint expected to produce transparencies or 35mm slides.

  • Cool. I know printing hardcopies of PowerPoint slides is common, but I've never seen it used to make hardcopy slides for projection.
    – Brian H
    Jul 5, 2018 at 17:10
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    That was the way to go for many years even after Powerpoint was available. Projectors wheren't common place in 1985.
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 5, 2018 at 18:18
  • Yeah, mid 1980s I was impressing people at university with my slide projector presentations because we had a Mac with a special Kodak film printer attached, so I could create photographic negatives from Photoshop and get them developed as slides at a film processing bureau Jul 6, 2018 at 1:24
  • @BrianH I had to print PowerPoint slides to overhead transparencies until 2004. Data projectors weren't affordable enough that classrooms and meeting rooms universally had them until the mid-2000s.
    – user71659
    Jul 9, 2018 at 0:04

Just one addition from the mid 1980s. At our university, we had a room with some AutoCAD PC/AT workstations and a flatbed pen plotter (the ones with a real-ink pen moving across the media and drawing lines when lowered to touch the media).

And besides the technical drawings that this was originally meant for, we also prepared transparencies there and used them for presentations.

I still have some HP-GL plot files that I prepared for my thesis during that time.


This is "Retrocomputing", so I'm asking about what computer software was commonly used to create the content, and how were computers involved in its production and/or presentation?


I'm interested in the related usage of retro computers, so only if the media was created using a computer. (from a comment)

Stephen Kitt has already given a great summary of presentation methods before the integrated use of computers from authoring to presentation. When concentrating on the computer side it might be useful to split this topic in two:

What use where computer before the widespread use of a computer driven display methods


How did the use of computers to display presentations evolve

The need to use at least computer output in presentations did arise quite early. Either to show products for sales purpose or training, but as well to use their abilities to easy create graphics from data that otherwise would require a lot of time to be drawn. As all of them had to be converted to reversal film anyway (Using slides (*2) was the way to go until the mid/late 1970s (*3)), why not taking them directly from the screen? Such camera setups where rather expensive but saved quite some time. (*4,5)

In companies with such equipment at hand, people soon used full screen editors to create slides, allowing a way shorter production cycles than typing the text on paper, sending the request to some office putting it into a form matching the corporate guidelines and turning the result into a slide.

With the advent of text processing, printers and the introduction of copiers, as well as a greater availability of overhead projectors (*7) it became standard to write presentations in a text system (or a typewriter) and copy it to a transparency (*6).

Using WYSIWYG software for transparency creation does predate PowerPoint by many years. I personally remember using a Siemens 5800 system (OEM version of a Xerox Star) in 1980 to create slides and setting up a system to incorporate data from a mainframe system (*8).

Programs like PowerPoint did evolve in the mid 1980s, when generally available computers gathered enough memory and 'high' resolution (aka VGA or better) displays to allow creation and handling of a whole page at once.

This is also where direct projection came to be. Have you ever wondered why some high price professional VGA /SuperVGA cards had an option for TV/S-Video output? Well, this allowed (among others) the direct use of a PC for presentation with a CRT projector (Video Gun). Such a configuration was usually confined to special meeting rooms or lecture rooms, and limited to rough content within the capabilities of TV.

The real change came in the second half of the 1980s, when durable LCD Overhead Displays became available. These are basically a LCD to be put atop an overhead projector so the display content gets projected like a transparency.

Unlike often assumed, they could not be used with (most) existing overhead projectors as they did need a better (brighter) light source than for ordinary transparencies. So usually a new projector was also needed. Still, their development was for several years ahead of integrated projectors, as later would require smaller and finer etched LCD for the same resolution which could at the same time endure greater heat due to the higher light density required for the same size picture. It wasn't until the mid 1990s that projectors like we know today really took over. Not least due TI's DLP technology.

(Or, did the corporate world just skip from whiteboards all the way to PowerPoint?...)

Bottom line: Yes - except it was from reversal film projections until the 1970s via overhead projectors and hand drawn or copied transparencies to ... well, PowerPoint.

PowerPoint as a product to allow easy creation of slides was the right product at the right time. Its rather easy handling allowed to create a presentation in WYSIWYG manner while laser printers enabled the desktop creation of overhead transparencies.

*1 - I'm a bit uneasy with the term 'retro' here, as I didn't understand the question to be specific of today's use of old computers for presentation? And the computers used 'back then' where anything but retro.

*2 - Well, in fact it goes way back until the Magic Lantern.

*3 - Value depending on the size of your company and the target audience.

*4 - Likewise Polaroid offered special cameras for fast 'hardcopy' of screens. Remember, that was the time before huge (several kilobyte!) memory and affordable printers.

*5 - I do remember several articles in computer magazines in the 1976-1979 frame suggesting the use of standard cameras as hardcopy / printout device by taking a photo of the screen. Better than writing down a program, and cheaper than a printer :))

*6 - A countless number of fixation stations of copiers died due the use of non heat resistant film.

*7 - Still around 1980 overhead projectors were mostly considered nerdy, good for schools, but not in a business environment. With new generations already exposed to such in schools, the attitude changed.

*8 - It was about manual creation and training documentation and involved writing a screen editor on the mainframe to fake user screens, a transfer utility to a (non-IBM, that was 1980) PC, writing a file system utility to create disks readable by the 5800 and finally transfer to that machine. But that's a different story.

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