Timeline of Early Digital-Graphics Innovations and Accomplishments at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated

Initially compiled by A. Michael Noll, September 19, 2014

A considerable number of innovative contributions in digital graphics software and hardware were made at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (BTL) during the 1960s. The people responsible for this research worked independently in a number of different departments – there was no single, central graphics research area. Some worked in such areas as speech research, mathematics, and computer systems. Their backgrounds were also quite varied, such as: electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics. The application for much of the research was mostly scientific, but artistic applications were also explored, although usually not formally. In some cases the artistic application motivated the research and resulted in later scientific application.

A Technical Memorandum (MM) was usually written and distributed widely about Bell Labs to document discoveries and accomplishments, with the year indicated by the initial two digits in the official number and the department by the following four digits. Much of the graphics work used the Stromberg-Carlson SC-4020 microfilm printer-plotter, which was installed in 1961 at the Murray Hill, NJ facility. Later, an interactive Honeywell DDP-224 computer system (developed by Peter B. Denes for speech research) was used by some of the researchers. A timeline of these innovations and contributions is presented here, with references to documentation.


Date Innovation People Documentation
1959 Random-dot stereograms created by computer, displayed on TV-like device. Bela Julesz B. Julesz, “Binocular Depth Perception of Computer-Generated Patterns,” Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 5 (1960), pp. 1125-1162.
1961 Stromberg-Carlson SC-4020 microfilm printer-plotter installed at Murray Hill location. Package of FORTRAN utility subroutines created. Clement F. Pease Bernard D. Holbrook & W. Stanley Brown, “Computing Science Technical Report No. 99 A History of Computing Research at Bell Laboratories (1937-1975).”
1962 Computer-animated movie of convergence of multidimensional scaling algorithm. Joseph B. Kruskal, Jr. http://stat-graphics.org/movies/multidimensional-scaling.html
1962 Color computer-animated movie of ground effects of explosion. Robert J. Tatem Mentioned in his private autobiography – but no other verification.
Early 1960s Computer-animated movie of simulation of missiles and decoys. Robert M. McClure S. Millman (Editor), A History of Science & Engineering in the bell System – Communication Sciences, 1984, p. 381.
August 1962 Digital computer art. A. Michael Noll BTL MM62-1234-14 “Patterns by 7090,” August 28, 1962.
November 1962 Proposal for programming language for computer-animated movies. Kenneth C. Knowlton BTL Memorandum for File, November 5, 1962, “A Proposal for Computer-Produced Animated Diagram Movies”
1963 BEFLIX (for: Bell Flicks) programming language developed. Kenneth C. Knowlton BTL MM63-1271-6 “BEFLIX, A Programming Language for Producing Animated Diagram Movies.”, Kenneth C. Knowlton, “A computer technique for producing animated movies,” Proceedings of the AFIPS Spring Joint Computer Conference, April 21-23, 1964, pp. 67-87.

U.S. Patent 3,609,670, "Program Controlled System for Processing Spatially Distributed Information," issued September 28, 1971.

1963 Computer-animated film “Simulation of a Two-Gyro Gravity-Gradient Attitude Control System.” Edward E. Zajac Edward E. Zajac, “Computer-made perspective movies as a scientific and communication tool,” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 7, No. 3 (March 1964), pp. 169-170.

Film at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2012/7/18/AT&T-Archives-First-Computer-Generated-Graphics-Film

1964 BEFLIX used to create computer-animated film “A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies” – use of raster graphics to tell story. Kenneth C. Knowlton Film at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2012/9/10/AT&T-Archives-Computer-Technique-Production-Animated-Movies
1964 Stereoscopic 3D projections. A. Michael Noll BTL MM64-1234-2 “Stereographic Projections by Digital Computer,” March 27, 1964.
April 1964 BE VISION programming package for orthographic views of surfaces. Ruth A. Weiss Ruth A. Weiss, “BE VISION, A Package of IBM 7090 FORTRAN Programs to Draw Orthographic Views of Combinations of Plane and Quadric Surfaces,” Journal of the ACM, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1966), pp. 194-204.
1964 Packard Bell 250 computer connected to IBM 7090 and used for graphical calculations. Elliot N. Pinson Bernard D. Holbrook & W. Stanley Brown, “Computing Science Technical Report No. 99 A History of Computing Research at Bell Laboratories (1937-1975).”
April 1965 Howard Wise Gallery Show “Computer-Generated Pictures.” Bela Julesz & A. Michael Noll Stuart Preston review in The New York Times, April 18, 1965.
1965 First of a series of computer-animated artistic films “Poemfield No. 1” – colorization by Brown and Olvey. Stan VanDerBeek (visiting artist) & Ken Knowlton Poemfield No. 2 at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2012/8/13/AT&T-Archives-Poem-Field-2
1965 Computer-animated film “Force, Mass and Motion.” Frank W. Sinden Frank W. Sinden, “Synthetic Cinematography,” Perspective, Vol. 7, pp. 279-289 (1965). Film at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2012/8/20/AT&T-Archives-Force-Mass-Motion
1965 Graphic 1 remote terminal developed – cathode ray tube with interactive light pen, using a DEC PDP-5 computer. William H. Ninke William H. Ninke, “Graphic 1: a remote graphical display console system,” Proceedings of the Fall Joint Computer Conference Part I, AFIPS (November 30-December 1, 1965), pp. 839-846. Video at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2012/9/7/AT&T-Archives-Graphic-1
1965 The creation of “graphic art images” through the use of a library of images formed by geometric patterns. Max V. Mathews & Henry S. McDonald U.S. Patent 3422419A, “Generation of graphics arts images,” applied October 19, 1965; issued January 14, 1969.
1965 Computer-animated stereoscopic 3D movies of random kinetic sculpture, ballet, four-dimensional hypercube. Subroutine packages for 3D pictures and movies. A. Michael Noll A. Michael Noll, “Computer-Generated Three-Dimensional Movies,” Computers and Automation, Vol. 14, No. 11, (November 1965), pp. 20-23.

BTL MM66-1234-1, “Computer-Generated Three-Dimensional Movies and Pictures,” January 20, 1966.

1966 Computer-generated pictures produced from grey scales of mosaic images. Leon Harmon & Kenneth C. Knowlton K. Knowlton and L. Harmon, "Computer-Produced Grey Scales," Computer Graphics and Image Processing No. 1, 1972, pp. 1-20.
June 1966 Symposium “The Human Use of Computing Machines” at Bell Telephone Laboratories, June 20-21, 1966. Academics from across the US were invited to learn about the use of digital computers in research. Computer-animated movies shown by K. C. Knowlton, A. M. Noll, and F. W. Sinden K. C. Knowlton, A. M. Noll, and F. W. Sinden, “Movies from the Computers,” Summary of presentation at Symposium in Proceedings of Symposium.
1966-68 Computer-generated artistic images and animations, programmed by Nam June Paik in FORTRAN. Nam June Paik (visiting artist) Archive of Smithsonian Institution; Prof. Greg Zinman.
1966-67 Computer-animated movie of harmonic phasors, for use in electrical engineering education. William H. Huggins (Johns Hopkins University) & Donald D. Weiner (Syracuse University) William H. Huggins & Doris R. Entwisle, “Computer Animation for the Academic Community,” AFIPS’69 Proc. (May 1969), pp. 623-627.
1967 Computer-animated short “Man and His World” for 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Stan VanDerBeek (visiting artist) & Ken Knowlton
1967 Computer-generated artistic images, programmed in FORTRAN by Marcus. Aaron Marcus (graphic designer) Aaron Marcus, “The Computer and the Artist,” Eye, Vol. 2, pp. 36-39 (Spring 1968).
1967 Computer-animated film “A Pair of Paradoxes” with Escher staircase and endlessly increasing tone. Edward Zajac & Roger Shepherd Film at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2011/10/10/AT&T-Archives-A-Pair-of-Paradoxes
1967 3D stereoscopic computer-animated simulation of the basilar membrane in the human ear. Robert C. Lummis, A. Michael Noll, Man Mohan Sondhi BTL MM67-1232-6 MM67-1234-5, “A 3-D Glimpse of the Hearing Process,” May 15, 1967.
1967 BEFLIX modified to create moving images of random-dot stereograms for experiments in perception. Carol Bosche Carol Bosche, “Computer-Generated Random Dot Images,” Design and Planning 2: Computers in Design and Communication, Edited by Martin Krampen and Peter Seitz, Hastings House, Publishers, Inc., 1967, pp. 86-91.
1967 Graphic 2 terminal is developed William H. Ninke Bernard D. Holbrook & W. Stanley Brown, “Computing Science Technical Report No. 99 A History of Computing Research at Bell Laboratories (1937-1975)”
October 1967 Grey-scale mosaic of “The Nude” reproduced in The New York Times. Leon D. Harmon & Kenneth C. Knowlton Lieberman, Henry R., “Art and Science Proclaim Alliance in Avant-Garde Loft,” The New York Times, October 11, 1967, p. 49.
1968 Computer animation of main title sequence of documentary “Incredible Machine.” A. Michael Noll A. Michael Noll, “Computer Animation and the Fourth Dimension,” AFIPS Conference Proceedings, Vol. 33, 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, Thompson Book Company: Washington, D.C. (1968), pp. 1279-1283. Film at: http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2011/4/22/AT%26T-Archives-Incredible-Machine
1968 Computer-generated images based on number theory. Manfred R. Schroeder & Sue Hanauer Manfred R. Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communication, Springer, 1984.
1968 Computer-animated movie of rainfall during thunderstorm in Holmdel, NJ. Anne Freeny & John Gabbe http://stat-graphics.org/movies/thunderstorm.html
April 1968 Proposal for a tactile, force-feedback interactive touch system for the DDP-224 computer system. Actual construction completed in 1970-71. A. Michael Noll BTL MM68-1234-2, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication: Computer Graphics for the Blind,” April 10, 1968., BTL MM71-1234-6, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” June 8, 1971., A. Michael Noll, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11., U.S. , 3919691A “Tactile man-machine communication system,” filed May 26, 1971; issued November 11, 1971.
June 1968 Software package for 2D and 3D input and output for the DDP-224 interactive computer system. A. Michael Noll BTL MM68-1234-3, “Software Package for Real-Time Interactive Computer Graphics for the Honeywell DDP-224 Computer,” June 6, 1968.
1969 Computer-generated hologram created (random 3D sculpture used as example). Michael C. King, A. Michael Noll, Daniel H. Berry M. C. King, A. M. Noll, D. H. Berry, "A New Approach to Computer-Generated Holography," Applied Optics, Vol. 9, No. 2, (February 1970), pp. 471-475.
1969 Computerized, interactive, page-layout design system. Aaron Marcus (consultant) Aaron Marcus , "A Prototype Computerized Page-Design System." Visible Language, 5:3 (1971), pp. 197-220.
1969 Raster-scan display hardware for the DDP-224 interactive computer system. A. Michael Noll BTL MM69-1234-8, November 21, 1969. A. Michael Noll, "Scanned-Display Computer Graphics," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 14, No. 3, (March 1971), pp. 145-150.
1969 FORTRAN IV version of BEFLIX. Kenneth C. Knowlton & Lorinda L. Cherry BTL MM-70-1371-4 “FORTRAN IV BEFLIX. Kenneth C. Knowlton and Lorinda L. Cherry, "FORTRAN IV BEFLIX", Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Users of Automatic Information Display Equipment (UAIDE), November 1969, pp. 411-431.
1970 Stereoscopic 3D joystick input and output display for the DDP-224 interactive computer system. A. Michael Noll BTL MM70-1234-10, “Real-Time Interactive Steroscopy,” December 11, 1970. A. Michael Noll, “Real-Time Interactive Steroscopy,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 3, (September/October 1972), pp. 14-22.
1970 EXPLOR programming language for computer-generated movies. Kenneth C. Knowlton BTL TM70-1371-12 “EXPLOR – A Generator of Images from Explicit Patterns, Local Operations, and Randomness,” September 14, 1970. Kenneth C. Knowlton, "EXPLOR — A Generator of Images from EXplicit Patterns, Local Operations & Randomness," Proc. 9th Annual UAIDE Mtg., pp. 544-583 (1970).
1973 Proposal for real-time, interactive, color video system for the DDP-224 system A. Michael Noll BTL Memorandum for Record, “Proposal for an Interactive, On-Line Real-Time Motion, Scanned, Color Display System for the DDP-224 Computer,” December 3, 1973.
1975 FORTRAN version of EXPLOR for minicomputers. Kenneth C. Knowlton BTL MM75-1271-2, “MINI-EXPLOR – A FORTRAN Coded Version of the EXPLOR Language for Minicomputers. Kenneth C. Knowlton, “MINI-EXPLOR: a FORTRAN-coded version of the EXPLOR language for mini (and larger) computers,” ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Fall 1975), pp. 31-42.
1976 Optical system for superimposing computed information on input devices (changing virtual key labels under semitransparent fingers) to create virtual keys. Kenneth C. Knowlton BTL MM76-1271-11 “Computer Displays Optically Superimposed on Input Devices.”

Kenneth C. Knowlton, "Computer Displays Optically Superimposed on Input Devices, Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 56, No. 3 (March 1977), pp.367-383.

Many of the people who performed this early work went on to do other things, for example, Edward E, Zajac headed a group of economists performing economic research relevant to the Bell System. Kenneth C. Knowlton took off for a year (1971-72) from Bell Labs to teach computer graphics and computer art at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and he then returned to Bell Labs and continued his graphics work. A. Michael Noll left in mid 1971 to work two years on the staff of the President’s Science Advisor and did not continue his research in graphics.

Scientists and engineers at Bell Labs used these graphics innovations and techniques in their research and development work. A number of scientists, and even artists, came to Bell Labs as “resident visitors” to use the graphics facilities there. As one example, Prof. William H. Huggins of Johns Hopkins University and Prof. Donald D. Weiner of Syracuse University came to Bell Labs to use the microfilm plotter to investigate computer-animated movies to teach concepts about phasors in electrical engineering. The Korean video-artist Nam June Paik came initially to Bell Labs in 1966 to explore the use of digital graphics in his art – others came later.