After graduating, he enrolled in a five-year engineering physics program at Cornell University. In 1953, he obtained his baccalaureate and two years later, he obtained his master’s degree in the same field. At Cornell, Knowlton first developed his love for computers, and he continued his studies at MIT, where in 1962 he obtained a doctorate in communication sciences with his thesis “Sentence Parsing with a Self-Organizing Heuristic Program “.
After leaving MIT, he began working for AT&T’s Bell Labs, the legendary industrial research and scientific development center credited with an abundance of technological breakthroughs during the 20th century. In 1963, Knowlton wrote BEFLIX, short for Bell Labs Flicks, among the first programming languages developed for creating computer graphics. The resulting images were generated at a resolution of 252×184.
In 1964, Knowlton and a group of Bell Labs employees, including EE Zajac, A. Michael Noll, Frank Sinden and others, produced the short A computer technique for the production of animated films (below), which explained how to use the BEFLIX programming language to make an animated film.
Although short-lived and used only by Knowlton himself, the BEFLIX language was a precursor to the programming languages that would later change the way filmed entertainment is produced. His pioneering work laid the essential foundations of computer animation, from 2D digital animation programs such as Flash and Toonboom to 3D animation spanning tron at Thor: Love and Thunder.
While Knowlton worked alone on programming, he preferred collaborating with visual artists to create computer-generated stills and movies, explaining that “on computer art, I generally lacked the courage to work entirely alone.” During the 1960s and 1970s, Knowlton made about twenty films in collaboration with filmmakers Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz, and these shorts were shown widely at film festivals, as well as at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern. Art.
UFOs (1971), which Knowlton made with Schwartz, can be viewed below:
Even in those primitive days of computer art and animation, Knowlton strongly believed that technology could be used by artists as a tool for self-expression. He laid out his vision in a 1968 speech:
We are further compelled, I think, to try to extend the use of computers into the realm of deeper art – that which helps us to appreciate, understand and enhance our humanity. If we succeed in this pursuit, then the computer will have been useful, not only directly, but it will have helped us psychologically to perceive it as a friend – as an instrument not necessarily of regimentation but an instrument that can help us significantly to experience and affirm our humanity.
In addition to his experiments in computer cinema, Knowlton also experimented with still images.
At Bell Labs, he and colleague Leon Harmon created a 12-foot-long mosaic of a nude woman using dots, letters, numbers, and other computer-generated symbols in varying shades of gray. The two then hung the piece in the office of Bell Labs’ executive director of communications research, Edward E. David. Although he apparently wasn’t amused by the prank, the portrait eventually found its way into the more grateful hands of artist Robert Rauschenberg, who hung it in his loft as part of a project titled “Experiments in Art and Technology”.
The mosaic was also featured in a New York Times article and is believed to be the first full-face nude ever published by the newspaper. It was also featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art titled “The Machine Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age”.
Knowlton worked at Bell Labs until 1982, after which he worked at SRI International, Networked Picture Sys. & Via Video, Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang Laboratories and Netwave/Quickbuy. Along with his innovative work with computers, Knowlton was also Visiting Professor of Computer Graphics at UC Santa Cruz in 1971 and Distinguished Visiting Professor at New Mexico State University in 1980.
Knowlton retired from technology research in 2008. According to his website, he spent the “last quarter of his life doing no harm: writing essays and memoirs, and using his own computer-aided methods to plan his works, most of which are mosaic portraits. .”
Knowlton is survived by his sons Rick, Kenneth and David; brother Fredrick Knowlton; and his sister Marie Knowlton. He is predeceased by his second wife, Barbara Bean-Knowlton, and two daughters, Melinda and Suzanne.