Fontaine Richardson honored for pioneering role in computer science

by Karina Coombs

01b-FontaineRichardson Fontaine Richardson was preparing to begin his thesis for a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in the ’60s when asked to consider a new doctoral program. “Sure, sign me up,” he recalls answering, going on to earn, in 1968, the second PhD in Computer Science (CS) ever awarded by the institution.

While the department was in its infancy during Richardson’s tenure, the College of Engineering’s CS Department at UIUC is consistently ranked in the top five for both its undergraduate and graduate programs by US News and World Report, and in the top 20 for the world’s best CS programs. A 2010 Wall Street Journal survey of public and private companies, as well as government agencies, also ranked the program ninth in terms of its students having the workplace skills needed at the time of graduation.

In recognition of Richardson’s place in the history of the university, as well as his many other accomplishments in the field of CS, he will be inducted into the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame on September 27. “This is quite an honor,” explains Richardson. “I wouldn’t come forward naturally except for this fact. It’s an honor that reflects on my family, my wife [and] my children.”

“[The] Hall of Fame was established to commemorate the most significant accomplishments throughout the history of Engineering at Illinois,” writes Interim Dean of the College of Engineering, Michael B. Bragg. “Accomplishments that have had great impact to society and that represent excellence in engineering leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

The ILLIAC and the odyssey

Richardson earned an undergraduate and graduate degree in Mathematics at the University of Arkansas before heading to Illinois in 1966 to pursue a PhD. Of his time at UIUC Richardson says “I was lucky to get in and lucky to get out.”

He also worked as an assistant in the Digital Computer Lab (DCL) on the ILLIAC II—the university’s one-year-old super-computer—and was involved in the successful development of a multi-user operating system or timeshare for multiple workstations using the ILLIAC.

A DCL research assistant told Richardson about the new CS doctoral program and he switched, auditing additional courses and coming up with a thesis focusing on graphics and the ILLIAC entitled, “Graphical Specification of Computation.” Richardson believed it was possible to use graphical images, in this case a flowchart, as a programming language for the machine rather than writing lines of code. His concept was proven on a PDP-8 and in 25,000 lines of code.

MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory

The 1960s saw a technological boom, particularly in the communities running along route 128 which were seeing an exponential growth in the number of start-ups and giving credence to Business Week’s 1955 description of the highway as “The Magic Semicircle.”

Richardson was in the enviable position of having a highly sought after degree. “This was a very heady time because PhDs in Computer Science were rare [and] so I got interviews from everybody,” he explains. Ultimately Richardson decided on a position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington. “I picked Lincoln Lab because fundamentally it was the most fun job.”

In 1968, Lincoln Lab was at the forefront of human-computer interaction (HCI) and graphics. They also had a super computer, known as the TX-2 that would greatly advance both the fields of HCI and artificial intelligence. “[They] had a history of computer graphics that went back to Ivan Sutherland and his ‘Sketchpad’ thesis,” says Richardson of the scientist most known for his pioneering work predating the graphical user interface, or the means by which we interact with electronic devices. “They had a one-of-a-kind computer that had robust graphics and people that understood. Given my interest in graphics and what they were doing, it was a no-brainer.”

For nearly 18 months Richardson worked with a team at Lincoln Lab using his experience with computer graphics to design photomasks for etching integrated circuits (IC), the building block of nearly all electronic devices used today. A positive response from the semiconductor industry to a proof of concept led Richardson and three others from Lincoln Lab to think about commercializing their system.

An entrepreneur is born

While Richardson had not envisioned himself an entrepreneur, other scientists had left Lincoln Lab to start successful technology companies, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) being one example. “A professor from [the MIT Sloan School of Business] gave a lecture to anybody that wanted to come. He did an analysis that showed five years after people left Lincoln Lab to start businesses, 90% were still in operation,” explains Richardson. “The four of us sat there and said, ‘those are pretty good odds.’”

In 1969, Richardson, Gary Hornbuckle, Richard Spann and Harry Lee formed Applicon Incorporated, one of the first manufacturers of Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems. Initially the group planned on having four products, but market forces helped shift their focus to just one: a computer and workstation for designing IC photomasks and named the Design Assistant. A system with four workstations cost $400,000.

Applicon, Inc.

An early brochure for Richardson’s Design Assistant showing its tablet and stylus.
(Courtesy of Fontaine Richardson)

One of the unique factors of Richardson’s Design Assistant was the ability of a user to train the system to recognize gestures or marks for system commands instead of inputting text. With a tablet and stylus, users could create a graphical representation that would be recognized by the machine as a command. The system was very successful with this early character recognition and drew on Richardson’s early work at UIUC. (A demo reel from the early 1970s showing Richardson’s Design Assistant can be found at: .

“Our first product had 24,000 bytes of main memory and 1 million bytes of hard drive. Period,” laughs Richardson. “And it worked and did productive things which is even more amazing.” Applicon is also credited, among other things, with the design and manufacturing of the CAD industry’s first continuous ink jet color image plotters as well as modifying DECs operating system within its workstations to make it one of the first multi-user operating systems.

The company continued to innovate and release new products and applications with companies such as General Motors, General Electric and Matsushita, Siemens and Cessna as customers. “One of the things about CAD is that people who succeed and prosper are basically staying in step with the users and user demand,” explains Richardson. “Moore’s Law basically says ‘half the size and double the speed every 18 months’ [so] you have to keep improving the tools. You can’t just sit static.”

Applicon had a successful public offering in 1980 and Richardson sold his stake in the company soon after. “Companies grow and founders grow at different rates,” he explains.

Mentoring new companies

Following Applicon, Richardson served as a visiting scientist at MIT. “The title was a hunting license for me to see if I found anything interesting to do,” he writes. “Together with others, we put on an early CAD/CAM conference [and then] I got interested in venture capital.” Richardson became a partner at Eastech Management Company, a venture capital firm, in 1983 and worked with a number of early stage technology companies in varying capacities. “I felt like I had something to offer,” he says. “Some of them made it big and some of them didn’t.”

Around this time Richardson also became involved with Mentor Graphics of Oregon, a successful electronic design automation company, and served on their board for a number of years in various positions. In addition to producing CAD tools, Mentor allowed Richardson to keep up with the latest technology through symposiums. Richardson also served on other boards, having been a Director of Emerson Hospital in Concord, and Director and Treasurer of the Carlisle Conservation Foundation and the Carlisle Land Trust, among others.

Taking stock

Richardson left Eastech in 2000 and Mentor Graphics in 2011. “The world changes,” he explains. “I did a start up 43 years ago and that experience isn’t relative. It may not have been relative for a length of time after that. The speed at which ideas are formulated and take hold and take root is very dramatic in today’s world. [New technology] is exciting. I think back about the Transcontinental Railroad or manned flight. It had to be equally exciting times.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 19% growth in computer and information research scientist positions through 2020, which suggests the number of degrees in CS will continue to grow. For his part, and over the past 15 to 20 years, Richardson has endowed a number of annual CS scholarships at UIUC and would encourage students thinking of studying CS to do so in relation to a particular application as opposed to pure CS.

“The work I did was to bridge the gap between what the user needs and what the software can do,” he explains. That’s an unmet need. You’ve got to be able to speak both languages. The worst products in the world are the ones developed by computer scientists without paying attention to what the user wants or vice versa.” ∆