The unsung creative genius, highly esteemed by his or her peers but completely unknown to the world at large, is a stock character in almost all walks of life.
There’s the “actor’s actor,” the “painter’s painter,” the “writer’s writer.” (Anyone out there heard of Norman Lewis, deemed “one of the best writers of our century” by Graham Greene? Most of his books are out of print.)
The computer science world, where the work of even the best-known figures is a closed book to the general public, similarly has its “engineer’s engineer” -- and perhaps none as accomplished as two brothers who recently delivered a joint reminiscence of their lives and careers to a rapt audience at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
William R. “Bert” Sutherland, 67, and his younger brother, Ivan, 65, arguably have had as much influence on the development of modern technology as any two siblings since Wilbur and Orville Wright. Little in California high tech over the last four decades developed untouched by either or both of them: Ivan was a co-founder of Caltech’s computer science department and had a stint at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, while Bert served as a key manager at Xerox Corp.'s legendary Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. The two, meanwhile, also were instrumental in the establishment of Sun Microsystems Laboratories, which spawned the Java programming language.
From their perches, the Sutherlands participated in the creation of the personal computer, the technology of advanced microprocessors, 3-D computer graphics and the Internet.
Sons of a New York dam engineer, the Sutherlands grew up in an era when the term “computer” still referred to the people who operated calculating machines rather than to the hardware itself, and no American university had a computer science department. These two made the most of the opportunity to etch some of the first footprints in the new science.
Ivan established his reputation as a computing trailblazer in 1962 with a program called Sketchpad, which occupies about the same position in the history of computer graphics software as, say, “Don Quixote” does in the history of the novel. Sketchpad, the basis of Ivan’s doctoral thesis at MIT, ran on only one computer in the world: MIT’s TX-2, a room-sized machine built by technology pioneer Wesley Clark to test the reliability of transistor circuits, then brand new.
A prophet of the coming age of personal computing, Clark had equipped his machine with such human-scale interfaces as a video display and a light pen to input data. Sutherland tailored Sketchpad to exploit these features to their utmost. As he recalls, Clark later told him that “he had built the machine for me -- but he didn’t know who I was when he built it.”
Sketchpad was also a window into the future of software -- “one of the twinkles in folks’ eyes about what you might do with computers,” as Ivan put it in an oral history a few years ago.
Many programs from that era look crude from today’s standpoint, but despite its two-dimensional, monochromatic display, Sketchpad still impresses. It could draw curves and circles, transform scrawled markings into formal mathematical or engineering symbols, zoom the display in and out, and draw “rubber-band” lines -- that is, allow the user to fix one end of a line on the screen and extend the other end out in any direction. “Nobody had done that before,” Ivan explained nonchalantly to the museum audience.
But if Ivan is responsible for the more lasting technical accomplishments of the pair, Bert’s skill at supervising creative scientists and engineers did as much to encourage the spread of dozens of computing innovations.
Bert worked at the Boston consulting firm Bolt, Beranek & Newman, which had a key contract to develop the Arpanet, the computing network that would spawn the Internet, before arriving at PARC in 1975 to run one of its two main laboratories. PARC’s best-known inventions, including a personal computer nicknamed the Alto and a networking technology called Ethernet, already had been developed and deployed throughout the building, although they were still largely unknown outside its walls.
Bert departed from corporate research orthodoxy by recruiting specialists in psychology, cognitive science, even anthropology to augment the work of the traditional scientists on his staff.
Convinced that basic research would suffocate in a closed environment, he sent his people into the outside world to discover how real users might interact with an Alto-style personal computer in a commercial setting. This helped set the course of the computer’s evolution into a desktop appliance: The metaphorical commands of “cut” and “paste” used in today’s word-processing software to rearrange blocks of text derives from his team’s excursions to Xerox’s publishing subsidiary, where they watched book editors rearrange galley proofs with scissors and glue pots.
At the same time, Bert wet-nursed the spread of a much more fundamental technology: the design of very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI. (The best-known modern example of VLSI design is Intel Corp.'s Pentium processor.) The founding principles of VLSI, which required a dramatically new way of designing computers, had been codified at Caltech in the mid-1970s by Ivan and Carver Mead; the question was how to propagate them through academia and industry.
With Bert’s encouragement, Mead collaborated with Lynn Conway, a PARC scientist who had expertise in computer architecture, on a VLSI textbook and a university-level syllabus. He also made PARC resources available to produce working prototypes of sample chips for students taking VLSI courses around the country, allowing them to test and debug their classwork on a scale that would have been impossible without his help. The effect of this assistance in hastening the development of a world-changing technology is immeasurable.
Bert also developed a set of guidelines for managing basic research in an industrial setting that is, unfortunately, honored most often in the breach by today’s corporate leaders. A research lab is at its heart a teaching institution, he said, where having interesting colleagues at hand is as essential as having an interesting problem to tackle. New projects, furthermore, need “a dedicated champion; if you don’t have someone willing to say the next couple of years of my career will be dedicated to scratching this itch, you don’t have a project.”
Finally, they need to be provided with adequate funding not tied to a firm deadline or a predictable outcome. “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research,” he said. “So contingency funds are a must.”
That remark hints at the most striking impression left by the Sutherlands’ recent talk: their sheer enjoyment of the process of scientific discovery. Ivan’s verdict on a ridiculous-looking six-legged walking machine he oversaw as a robotics project at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s could serve as a summary of his and his brother’s lifelong approach to basic research: “I don’t know where the idea came from,” he said, “but it sure was fun.”
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You
can reach Michael Hiltzik a firstname.lastname@example.org and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.