PROVIDENCE, R.I [Brown University] — In recognition of his distinguished career as a computer graphics pioneer and educator, the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California, honored Brown University computer science professor Andy van Dam with a 2021 Fellow Award.
In a late-September virtual event, van Dam was honored by luminaries including Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios; Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer at Microsoft; and danah boyd, a Class of 2001 Brown graduate and founder of the research institute Data & Society. The event highlighted van Dam’s five-decade career, which includes foundational work in computer graphics as well as the development of hypertext, a precursor to modern webpages and hyperlinks.
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the CHM is home to one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of computing artifacts and oral histories. The fellows program “honors distinguished technology pioneers — unsung heroes and legends — for their outstanding merit and significant contributions that have advanced computing.”
“When I told my wife, Debbie, the great news of my election as a fellow of the CHM, she responded with: ‘Great, now you’re officially a museum piece!’” van Dam said. “For me, it is an incredible honor to be inducted in the Pantheon of the computer age, to be in the company of so many giants of our field.”
Van Dam, who in 1966 received only the second Ph.D. ever awarded in the burgeoning field of computer science, joined the Brown faculty in applied math in 1965. He worked with colleagues John Savage and Peter Wegner to create Brown’s Department of Computer Science in 1979, and served as inaugural chair.
His work in computer graphics helped to redefine how people interact with computers. He was co-author of the 1982 textbook “Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice,” which was the dominant introductory text in computer graphics for decades and remains influential today. His work is widely recognized to have influenced computer-aided design systems and modern animated films. Having invited van Dam to the premiere of the blockbuster “Toy Story,” the late Apple and Pixar founder Steve Jobs presented van Dam with a book on the making of the film that included the inscription, “You made it so.”
In the late 1960s, van Dam and his students, in collaboration with colleague Ted Nelson, developed the Hypertext Editing System (HES), a revolutionary word processing system that used links and branching text to organize information. In the early 1970s, Van Dam used HES, and its successor FRESS, to create an early foray into the digital humanities — a course in which students used Brown’s room-sized mainframe computer to analyze poetry. The class “foreshadowed wikis, blogs and communal documents of all kinds,” van Dam said.
Van Dam has taught thousands of students during his time at Brown, many of whom have gone on to become prominent computer scientists as well as leaders at companies like Pixar, Microsoft, Adobe and others. Van Dam later served as Brown's first vice president for research from 2002 to 2006.
In becoming a CHS fellow, van Dam joins NASA mathematician and "hidden figure" Katherine Johnson, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, software pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and other computing luminaries.