Ken Knowlton, an engineer, computer scientist, and artist who was instrumental in the development of the science and art of computer graphics and created many of the earliest computer-generated pictures, portraits, and movies, passed away on June 16 in Sarasota, Florida. Knowlton was a pioneer in the field of computer graphics and helped pioneer both the science and the art of the field. He was 91.
According to his son Rick Knowlton, it is unknown what caused his father to pass away in a hospice care.
After receiving his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1962, Dr. Knowlton began working at Bell Facilities in Murray Hill, New Jersey. At the time, Bell Labs was a forward-looking part of the Bell telephone corporation and was regarded as one of the most prestigious research labs in the world. He made the decision to create movies using computer-generated visuals after discovering that the laboratory had just installed a new equipment that could print pictures onto film.
In a conversation with a journalist in 2016, he reflected on his time spent working at Bell Labs by stating, “You could build drawings with letters on the screen or spots on the screen or lines on the screen.” “How about going to the movies?”
BEFLIX, which is an abbreviation for “Bell Labs Flicks,” was the computer animation programming language that he created over the course of the subsequent several months. He thought that BEFLIX was the first language of its kind. The year after that, he created an animated film with the assistance of this language. This animated short film ran for ten minutes and was titled “A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies.” It explained the process that was utilised to create the film.
Even though Dr. Knowlton was the only individual to ever utilise the BEFLIX language, the principles that underpinned this technology would later cause a revolution in the film industry. He and his colleagues swiftly replaced it with other tools and procedures.
Around the middle of the 1980s, computer graphics became an essential component of full-length motion pictures such as “Tron” and “The Last Starfighter.” Pixar Studios, located in Northern California, is responsible for the production of “Toy Story,” a feature film that was released in 1995 and featured fully computer-generated imagery. These days, computer-generated imagery, sometimes known as CGI, plays some kind of part in almost every movie and television programme.
According to Ted Nelson, a pioneer in the field of computer science as well as a philosopher who wrote about Dr. Knowlton’s early work, “He was the first guy to fill a movie screen with pixels.” “Now, every movie you watch was generated on a digital machine.”
Dr. Knowlton attended Cornell University for his undergraduate education after graduating from high school a year early as the valedictorian of his class. It was at Cornell University that Dr. Knowlton’s parents had first met while they were both pursuing degrees in agriculture before settling on the decision to purchase a farm. In order to get his master’s degree, he continued his studies at Cornell and constructed an X-ray camera out of components salvaged from an electron microscope.
He went to Cornell, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Roberta Behrens, and it was then that the two of them became Quakers. After he completed his master’s degree, he and his wife went to Quaker labour camps in El Salvador and Mexico to assist in the construction of housing infrastructure for the less fortunate. It was at this time that he became infected with polio. For the remainder of his life, he was required to walk with either a leg brace or a cane.
It was at Cornell in the mid-1950s that Dr. Knowlton began his interest in computers – room-size devices run through punched cards and magnetic tape reels that were just starting to appear in government laboratories, academia and business. He became involved in the project as a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after hearing about a group there that was working to develop computer technology that could translate between languages such as English and French. The group’s goal was to construct the technology. Both the linguist Noam Chomsky and Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, served as advisors to him for his thesis.
Dr. Knowlton made the discovery at Bell Labs that it was possible to produce detailed pictures by stringing together a series of dots, characters, numbers, and other symbols that were created by a computer. Each sign was selected based simply on its brightness, or how brilliant or black it looked when seen from a distance. It was therefore possible for his computer programmes to construct recognisable pictures, such as flowers or faces, by carefully adjusting the brightness of each symbol as it was inserted.