The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Ivan Sutherland

Born 16 May 1938, Hastings, Nebraska, USA

ACM A.M. Turing Award (1988) “for his pioneering and visionary contributions to computer graphics, starting with Sketchpad, and continuing after.”

Sutherland’s interest in computers was apparent from school age. For example, working on the simple relay-based computer SIMON, which could add numbers as far as 15, Sutherland wrote software which allowed it to divide. He came from a family with interest in engineering: his father was a Ph.D. Civil Engineer who designed major dams, for instance on the Snake River in Idaho. His mother was an educator both of her own children and of pupils in their town in need of extra help.

From 1955 on, Sutherland studied Electrical Engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, USA (Bachelor of Science 1959) and took his Master of Science in the subject at the California Institute of Technology (1960). He did post-graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (Ph.D. 1963). He served in the US Army for two years, assigned to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) where he managed the USA’s premier computer research program. After leaving DARPA he became an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Harvard University (1965-1968), a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Utah (1968-1976) and the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and Head of the Department of Computer Science at the California Institute of Technology (1976-1980).

At the same time, Sutherland was an entrepreneur. In 1968, with his colleague, David C. Evans, he founded the Evans and Sutherland Computer Corporation (E&S) in Salt Lake City. E&S manufactured display hardware to show three-dimensional pictures moving in real time. E&S equipment was widely used in aircraft simulation systems for training pilots. In 1980, with his older brother, William (Bert) Sutherland, and his former student, Robert Sproull, he founded a three-person consulting firm, Sutherland, Sproull and Associates (SSA). Sun Microsystems purchased SSA in 1991 to form the nucleus of its research laboratory. Sutherland’s older brother, Bert, became Director of the laboratory and thus Ivan’s boss. Sutherland became a technical Fellow and Vice President of Sun, a position he held until moving to Portland, Oregon in 2009. He now works at Portland State University in the Asynchronous Research Center (ARC) which he founded with Marly Roncken, his technology partner and spouse since 2006. Sutherland has two children and four grown grandchildren.

Sutherland’s doctoral thesis had the title ‘Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communications System’. Sketchpad was the first interactive drawing program; it pioneered the graphical user interface. It ran on what was then the most powerful computer in the world, the Lincoln Laboratory TX-2. The TX-2 had a graphical display and a light pen (the mouse had yet to be invented). The light pen allowed its user to point to objects on the screen and move or change them at will. Sketchpad opened the eyes of the world to the potential of computer graphics now familiar to all who use a mouse and a screen. For Sketchpad, Sutherland developed data structures for storing, accessing, and modifying the drawings on the screen. These data structures anticipated the data structures now common in modern “object oriented” computer languages. His software made it possible to zoom into the image and to scale and move objects. Sutherland continued his work in computer graphics at Harvard by building the first head-mounted display system in which a user was immersed in images that appear all around her. The name “virtual reality” was later applied to this kind of display.

Although most widely known for his work in computer graphics, Sutherland has made contributions in much wider albeit less well known fields. Beginning in 1976 at Caltech, Sutherland worked with Carver Mead, abandoning computer graphics in favor of integrated circuits. In a few short years the Caltech group turned integrated circuit design from a private art practiced in only a few commercial firms into a field suitable for academic study. Sutherland’s 1999 book, “Logical Effort”, showed how to design fast circuits using simple basic physical principles. Sutherland’s widely cited 1988 Turing Award lecture, Micropipelines, launched widespread interest in self-timed circuit design, a field that has captured his interest ever since. He is one of the leading proponents of the “self-timed” or “clockless” design paradigm. He believes that his more flexible “clockless” design style will inevitably replace today’s widely used “clocked” design paradigm. The very fast circuits of the future will require self-timed designs to avoid violating the physical truth that simultaneously is impossible over physical distance.