Ken Knowlton, a father of computer art and animation, dies at 91

Ken Knowlton, an engineer, computer scientist and artist who helped pioneer the science and art of computer graphics and made many of the first computer-generated pictures, portraits and movies, died June 16 in Sarasota, Florida. He was 91.

His son, Rick Knowlton, said the cause of death, at a hospice facility, was unclear.

In 1962, after finishing a doctorate in electrical engineering, Ken Knowlton joined Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, a future-focused division of the Bell telephone conglomerate that was among the world's leading research labs. After learning that the lab had installed a new machine that could print images onto film, he resolved to make movies using computer-generated graphics.

"You could make pictures with letters on the screen or spots on the screen or lines on the screen," he said in a 2016 interview, recalling his arrival at Bell Labs. "How about a movie?"

Over the next several months, he developed what he believed to be the first computer programming language for computer animation, called BEFLIX (short for "Bell Labs Flicks"). The following year, he used this language to make an animated movie. Called "A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies," this 10-minute film described the technology used to make it.

Although Knowlton was the only person to ever use the BEFLIX language -- he and his colleagues quickly replaced it with other tools and techniques -- the ideas behind this technology would eventually overhaul the movie business.

By the mid-1980s, computer graphics were an integral part of feature films like "Tron" and "The Last Starfighter." In 1995, a studio in Northern California, Pixar, released "Toy Story," a feature film whose images were generated entirely by computer. Today, computer-generated imagery, or CGI, plays a role in practically every movie and television show.

"He was the first man to fill a movie screen with pixels," said Ted Nelson, a computer science pioneer and philosopher who wrote about Knowlton's early work. "Now, every movie you see was created on a digital machine."

Kenneth Charles Knowlton was born June 6, 1931, in Springville, New York. His parents, Frank and Eva (Reith) Knowlton, owned a farm in that small community, about 30 miles south of Buffalo, where they grew corn and raised chickens.

After graduating a year early from high school as class valedictorian, Knowlton enrolled in a five-year engineering and physics program at Cornell University, where his parents had first met while studying agriculture before deciding to buy a farm. He stayed at Cornell for a master's degree, which involved building an X-ray camera using parts from an electron microscope.

At Cornell, he met his future wife, Roberta Behrens, and together they joined the Quakers. After he finished his master's degree, they traveled to Quaker work camps that helped build housing infrastructure for the poor in El Salvador and Mexico, where he contracted polio. He walked with a leg brace or a cane for the rest of his life.

It was at Cornell in the mid-1950s that Knowlton developed his interest in computers -- room-size machines operated via punched cards and magnetic tape reels that were just beginning to arrive in government labs, academia and industry. After reading about a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that aimed to build computer technology that could translate between languages, like English and French, he joined the project as a doctoral student. His thesis advisers included linguist Noam Chomsky and Marvin Minsky, a founding father of artificial intelligence.

At Bell Labs, Knowlton realized that he could create detailed images by stringing together dots, letters, numbers and other symbols generated by a computer. Each symbol was chosen solely for its brightness -- how bright or how dark it appeared at a distance. His computer programs, by carefully changing brightness as they placed each symbol, could then build familiar images, like flowers or faces.

After experimenting with movies, he applied similar techniques to portraits and other still images. In the mid-1960s, he and a collaborator named Leon Harmon created a 12-foot-long computer-generated mosaic of a nude woman and, as a joke, hung it on the wall of their boss's office.

Their boss, Edward E. David Jr., the Bell Labs executive director of communications research, who would be a science adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, was not amused. But the portrait later caught the attention of pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, who put it on display in his New York City loft when he launched a project called Experiments in Art and Technology in fall 1967, aiming to develop new collaborations between artists and engineers.

The New York Times published an article about the event the next day, including a picture of Knowlton's image of the nude woman, titled "Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I)." It was believed to be the first full-frontal nude printed in the pages of the Times. A year later, the picture was part of a landmark exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called "The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age."

Knowlton remained at Bell Labs until 1982, experimenting with everything from computer-generated music to technologies that allowed deaf people to read sign language over the telephone. He later joined Wang Laboratories, where, in the late 1980s, he helped develop a personal computer that let users annotate documents with synchronized voice messages and digital pen strokes.

In 2008, after retiring from tech research, he joined a magician and inventor named Mark Setteducati in creating a jigsaw puzzle called Ji Ga Zo, which could be arranged to resemble anyone's face. "He had a mathematical mind combined with a great sense of aesthetics," Setteducati said.

In addition to his son Rick, Knowlton is survived by two other sons, Kenneth and David, all from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; a brother, Fredrick Knowlton; and a sister, Marie Knowlton. Two daughters, Melinda and Suzanne Knowlton, also from his first marriage, and his second wife, Barbara Bean-Knowlton, have died.


While at Bell Labs, Knowlton collaborated with several well-known artists, including experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, computer artist Lillian Schwartz and electronic music composer Laurie Spiegel. He saw himself as an engineer who helped others create art, as prescribed by Rauschenberg's project.

But later in life he began creating, showing and selling art of his own, building traditional analog images with dominoes, dice, seashells and other materials. He belatedly realized that when engineers collaborate with artists, they become more than engineers.

"In the best cases, they become more complete humans, in part from understanding that all behavior comes not from logic but, at the bottommost level, from intrinsically indefensible emotions, values and drives," he wrote in 2001. "Some ultimately become artists."

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