R O B 3 R T   T H O R N T O N
Sera (age 7) and Hamlit
B R I E F   B I O
 

[Last updated 17 July 2001 -- new detail footnotes below]

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. My business career began at age 6, making custom designed pot holders and selling them door-to-door. I moved on to gardening, selling Christmas cards, delivering newspapers, caddying at the golf club, pumping gas, and doing construction work. I was intrigued with architecture, beginning in grade school, and the skills picked up in high school drafting class led to my work as an architectural draftsman.

Then, while studying architecture (U. of Nebraska) I got hooked on programming computers to do 3-D modeling (as a design modeling medium) and graphic interaction. To learn more, I moved to Ithaca, NY (Cornell1) and then Pittsburgh (CMU2) for graduate studies in computer science and 3-D graphics. It was a thrill to work with many talented people, who became life-long friends. My time at CMU culminated in starting a consulting business called Graphic Action3, and a big development contract with Westinghouse.

I left Pittsburgh to work for five years with a real creative bunch at the N.Y.I.T Computer Graphics Lab (Old Westbury, NY), where I went to help transfer early computer graphics R&D into commercial products and the academic curriculum (Professor4 of C.S. and Arch.). I returned to Pittsburgh to work with CMU colleagues at a start-up called Formtek. Before long, I took off to start my own software publishing business (Jump Development Group5), and developed software for Apple Macintosh computers. I've since moved on to a variety of consulting projects and evolving Internet business ideas.

If this sounds like work has been a major focus in my life, that would be accurate. I was also married once, and am blessed with a talented and most responsible daughter. (That's a picture of Sera at age 7, with her beloved Hamlit.) Life-long interests include cooking and keeping fit (bicycling, aerobics, racquetball, Pilates, Yoga). I've always been a serious wrench-head and have rebuilt several car engines6 (doing a time-lapse video animation of my last project as it was being assembled). OK, I admit it, I'm a total geek -- not just with computers.

Currently, I'm finding the joy of life in my daughter, my friends and family, cooking, learning Yoga, and not owning a tv. I live with my brother, Ned, in an old house in Swissvale, PA, undergoing slow and careful renovations (I'll just leave it ambiguous as to whether that applies to me or the house). We have a three stall garage.


[Following footnotes added 17 July 2001]

1C o r n e l l   U n i v e r s i t y
I was lured to Cornell with the promise of a just-created Cornell Program of Computer Graphics, endowed with research grants from NSF, of which $150,000 was earmarked for building a high performance interactive 3-d computer graphics system. Just a few months before, I had attended the first annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Boulder, Colorado, where I learned all about an exotic new graphics processor, called the Picture System, made by Evans and Sutherland Computer Corporation in Salt Lake City. It all seemed like a perfect match.

The Picture System had custom high speed hardware to do the matrix algebra and line clipping for geometric transformations (including perspective division and port mapping with depth cueing), and, with its beautiful high resolution monochrome (but  variable intensity) line-drawing display, it could heat a small house -- it was love at first sight. Sure, there were also plans to put together a frame buffer at Cornell, in order to program full color shaded pictures, but this Picture System box was the brainchild of Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, and was the most comprehensive machine available for doing dynamic interactive 3-d display. Having spent the entire previous year (well actually only about 20 hours a day) writing software to do graphic display calculations similar to what this hardware could do, but thousands of times slower, there was no choice, I had to go.

So, I packed up my 1965 Mercedes Benz 220SEb (black with red interior) with all my worldly possessions, including my custom-built Peugeot Reynolds 531 racing bike from the London trip, Henry Kloss-designed Advent loudspeakers (purchased second-hand from Lincoln's own one-hit recording artists, "In the Year 2525" Zager and Evans), and my home-brew Sinclair Stereo-60-based FM receiver. I had just rebuilt the Mercedes' engine, after purchasing it in a distress sale from my architecture prof, Al Quick, for $550 (when half the engine was in pieces in the trunk and there was a hole in one piston) so I was READY TO ROLL!

When I approached Ithaca, my professor, Don Greenberg, Director of the Cornell Program of Computer Graphics, met me at the edge of town in his 1965 Volkswagen bug (constantly threatening to collapse into a pile of rusting junk), and escorted me in to town. Don and his lovely wife, Iris, put me up for the night in the lower bunk of their son's room and fed me my first taste of ratatouille. Now, Don fancied himself a street-wise dude from Queens, and in spite of his previous years as a domineering athlete, he was just coming into his own, in the competitive Cornell research hierarchy, so he was really at the peak of his alpha male stage. But then, I digress. Recursively. Needless to say, many interesting stories ensued.

We did purchase that E&S Picture System, along with a DEC PDP-11/45 mini-computer, and for the next two years, I proceeded to squeeze the bits out of the Picture System by day, and run a new renegade operating system called Unix on the 11/45, by night. I ended up using the Unix troff software to format and print my master's thesis, on Interactive modeling in three dimensions through two-dimensional windows. [As for the Unix connection, I had read the original paper on Unix, in the CACM, and knew that it was something special. So, I called Ken Thompson at Bell Labs and asked how I could get a copy for my pdp-11. After having the appropriate documents signed, Brian Kernighan sent me a tape -- one of less than a hundred to have been distributed outside of Bell Labs. I used Unix extensively, in one form or another, for the following 14 years.]

2C a r n e g i e   M e l l o n   U n i v e r s i t y
My computer-aided design research at CMU centered around the GLIDE (Graphical Language for Interactive DEsign) projects funded by NSF and the Army Corps of Engineers.

3G r a p h i c   A c t i o n
Under contract with the Westinghouse Transportation Division (who manufactured small automated train systems for moving people through airports) I built a high-performance interactive 3-d design system. It was used to model and simulate the operation of their people mover systems within a prospective customer's site. It was built into a multi-media presentation room in the Atlanta airport, with a seven foot rear-projected color display.

4In browsing the New York Institute of Technology web site just now, I happened to note the current President claims that at the age of 38, he was "the youngest person in college history to be promoted through the ranks to full professor." However, checking my records, I find that I was promoted from associate to full professor by the NYIT board of trustees at the age of 31 after setting up a computer-aided design curriculum in the School of Architecture. Ha! Obviously, not something that they keep searchable records on, but somebody thought it would be a cool thing to claim.

5J u m p   D e v e l o p m e n t   G r o u p
I set out, as Jump Development Group, to work on some ideas involving the management, access, and pre-viewing of rich-media documents. As the market transformed, and I figured out how to overcome some basic system limitations that were getting in my way, I ended up developing a system enhancement for Apple Macintosh computers, called RAM Charger (first sold as OptiMem). I was lucky to have a small group of dedicated people at Jump to persevere through the struggles of building all the pieces of a software publishing business. Jump is now fading into history, but good friends remain.

6Buying disabled Volkswagens, fixing them, and then reselling them, was one of my on-going schemes to pay college tuition.


R O B 3 R T   T H O R N T O N

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