Bell Labs


Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ was a leading research contributor in computer graphics, computer animation and electronic music from its beginnings in the early 1960s. Initially, researchers were interested in what the computer could be made to do, but the results of the visual work produced by the computer during this period have established people like Michael Noll and Ken Knowlton as pioneering computer artists.

Edward Zajac produced one of the first computer generated films at Bell Labs in 1961, which demonstrated that a satellite could be stabilized to always have a side facing the earth as it orbited. This film was titled A two gyro gravity gradient altitude control system. Ken Knowlton developed the Beflix (Bell Flicks) animation system in 1963, which was used to produce dozens of artistic films by himself and artists such as Stan VanDerBeek and Lillian Schwartz. Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon experimented with human pattern perception and art by perfecting a technique that scanned, fragmented and reconstructed a picture using patterns of dots (such as symbols or printer characters.) Ruth Weiss created in 1964 (published in 1966) some of the first algorithms for converting equations of surfaces to orthographic views on an output device.

The artistic/scientific/educational image making efforts at Bell Labs were some of the first to show that electronic digital processing (using the IBM 7094 computer) could be coupled with electronic film recording (using the Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm recorder) could be used to make exciting, high resolution images. With the dozen or so films made between 1963 and 1967, and the many more films after that, they showed that computer animation was a viable activity. Zajac's work, Sinden's films (eg, Force, Mass and Motion) and studies by Noll in the area of stereo pairs (eg, Simulated basilar membrane motion) were some of the earliest contributions to what is now known as scientific visualization.

Turner Whitted arrived at Bell Labs from NC State (PhD - 78), and proceeded to shake the CGI world with an algorithm that could ray-trace a scene in a reasonable amount of time. His film, The Compleat Angler is one of the most mimicked pieces of CGI work ever, as every student that enters the discipline tries to generate a bouncing ray-traced ball sequence. Whitted was also very instrumental in the development of various scan line algorithms, as well as approaches to organizing geometric data for fast rendering. In 1983, Whitted left Bell Labs to establish Numerical Designs, Ltd. in Chapel Hill. NDL was founded with Robert Whitton of Ikonas to develop graphics toolkits for 3D CGI. Key developments of NDL include

Whitted also had a faculty appointment at UNC, and in 1997 joined the graphics division at Microsoft. He is an ACM Fellow, and received the 1986 SIGGRAPH Graphics Achievment award for his simple and elegant algorithm for ray-tracing. He is now lead contact for the Graphics group and the Hardware Devices group at Microsoft, where he is investigating alternative user interface devices, such as wearable interfaces.

Knowlton/Harmon perception images

Knowlton image of CRT screen interaction with blowup of printer character composition

Ken Knowlton self portrait in mosaic (from his web site at

Frame from Edward Zajac film

Michael Noll - Gaussian Quadratic (1965)

Michael Noll - Computer Composition with Lines Mondrian approximation (1965)

Frame from VanDerBeek/Knowlton - Poem Field film (1967)

Lillian Schwartz - It Is I Mona Lisa - DaVinci comparison (1987)

Lillian Schwartz - After Picaso (1987)

Whitted Ray-traced image

Whitted's Microsoft web page


NameCame fromWent toComments
Ed Zajac   
Ken KnowltonMITWang 
Stan VanderBeek   
Lillian Schwartz   
Michael NollNewark College of EngineeringWhite House Office of Science and Technology, USC 
Frank Sinden   
Turner WhittedNC StateUNC, Microsoft 
Bella Julesz   
C. Bosche   
Leon Harmon   
Ruth Weiss   
Max Mathews   
Emmanuel Ghent   
Laurie Spiegel   
Jerry Spivack   
Doris Seligmann   
Carl Machover