Ken Knowlton is a pioneer of computer animation. A computer scientist and engineer, he worked at Bell Labs from 1963 to 1982, where he developed the graphics programming languages BEFLIX, EXPLOR, ATOMS, and SPHERES. He collaborated with artists Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian F. Schwartz, among others, in the making of computer-animated films. Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I) (1967), a computer-generated print he co-created with Leon Harmon, is one of the most widely circulated early computer artworks.

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Springville, NY (USA), 1931

With a background in Engineering Physics at Cornell University, Kenneth C. Knowlton earned a PhD in Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1962. In the same year, he started working in the Techniques Research Department at Bell Labs, where he developed groundbreaking computer animation programming languages and carried out collaborations with several artists. In 1963, he created BEFLIX, the first embedded domain-specific language for computer animation, which he used to create scientific and educational films. The films were created by capturing the output of a display tube with a photographic camera inside a dark room. The programming language allowed to write the instructions describing the elements and sequences of the animation and feed them into the computer. The computer constructed the pictures and wrote their descriptions on a magnetic tape, which is used to control the display tube and the camera. In this manner, the most repetitive tasks involved in the animation were automated, while the programming language facilitated creating a series of innovative visual effects. Knowlton used BEFLIX in collaboration with the artist Stan Vanderbeek to create the series of computer-animated films Poemfields 1-10 (1966-1969), as a well as the film Man and his World (1967) for the EXPO 67 in Montreal. He also developed other graphics programming languages that were implemented in further collaborations with artists: Lillian F. Schwartz created a series of ten animated films using Knowlton’s language EXPLOR between 1968 and 1974, while for a collaboration with Emmanuel Ghent on the film Baobab (1978), Knowlton used the SPHERES system to produce an animation inspired by Ghent’s electronic music. In the 1960s, he also took part in major art exhibitions, such as The Machine as seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (MoMA, New York, 1968) and Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA, London, 1968), and joined the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I) (1967), a computer-generated print co-created with Leon Harmon, was presented during a press conference for an E.A.T. event and later on at the MoMA show. It became one of the most widely circulated early computer artworks.

After his period at Bell Labs, in the 1908s and 1990s, Knowlton worked at several companies developing further techniques and tools for computer graphics. He has taken part in numerous group art exhibitions, such as Artists in the Computer Age (MIT Museum, Cambridge, 1987), SIGGRAPH 25th Anniversary Art Show (Orlando, Florida, 1998), Ex Machina – Frühe Computergrafik bis 1979 (Kunsthalle Bremen, 2007), and Drawing with Code: Works from the Anne and Michael Spalter Collection (DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 2011).

Knowlton, K. (1964). A Computer Technique for Producing Animated Movies. AFIPS Conference Proceedings, 25, pp. 67-87. [EN] Video (16 min.).
–– (1972). Collaborations with Artists — A Programmer’s Reflections. In: F. Nake & A. Rosenfeld (eds.). Graphic Languages: Conference Proceedings. London: North-Holland. [EN]
–– (1976). Computer Art. In: R. Leavitt (ed.). Artist and Computer. New Jersey: Creative Computing Press. [EN]
–– (2001). On the Frustrations of Collaborating with Artists. Computer Graphics, Vol. 35, No.3, August 2001, pp.20-22. [EN]
–– (2005). Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scientist. YLEM Journal, Vol. 25, No.2, Jan/Feb. 2005. [EN]
–– (2012). Brief Manifesto. Ken Knowlton. [EN]

Noll, A.M. (2017). The VanDerBeek-Knowlton Movies. Leonardo. doi:10.1162/leon_a_01442 . [EN]

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Ken Knowlton, A Computer Technique for Producing Animated Movies (1964).