The Creative Mind: Andries “Andy” van Dam


I walked inside the main memory of the UNIVAC I and I had no idea that you could take that room full of equipment and squeeze it down to where we are talking now about embedding microprocessors in our bodies. I got hooked on the notion of using computer graphics for human-computer interaction when I was a graduate student and saw this fantastic film called “Sketchpad” which showed a person interacting with a computer using graphics, which was utterly novel at the time. It was less a decision than just falling in love, and saying man, that looks like fun! And I want to do that! Rather than a calculated decision of “this is going to be a big thing some day. “We had no idea, studying computer science, how endemic computing would become in the modern world. In the ’60s, there weren’t any computer graphics systems to a first approximation. I was amazingly fortunate that in my second year here at Brown, we managed to get an equipment grant from IBM and got one of the very earliest commercial display consoles. We’ve had the longest running computer graphics laboratory in the known universe, and I was fortunate again to be in the right place, at the right time to be able to help found a Computer Science department. I, in fact, came to Brown with the notion that that’s what I wanted to do. I worked with colleagues like John Savage from Engineering to build up our initially small department, 7 people, and we are now close to 30 and still have some growth potential. I characterize what I do as experimental research and systems building. I like to build systems, particularly ones that are useful to ordinary folks. In a sense that makes it a little easier, because I can have a pretty good idea of the kind of target system I would like to create with my students. I had great fun having integrated teams of a couple of PhD students, some Master’s students, and some undergraduates. I have to say, most of the time, still, the largest proportion by far of my workforce, if you can call it that, are the undergraduates. I was a big fan of the Open Curriculum. The Open Curriculum has lasted because it works for Brown in terms of attracting a bright, ambitious, independent, free-thinking student body. People enjoy teaching a kind of student who has some streak of “I want to do it my way,” which I always had myself. I have been able to forge relationships with the forefront companies in our field and have been able to place former students in positions where they quickly rose to leadership positions and, of course, it’s a standard thing, once you have a few hot shots go to a company, they come back and recruit. Pixar is a very interesting case in point, where some of their very earliest workforce were people who had studied with me. I’m very proud of the leadership role that some of those people have performed in Pixar and some of them are still there as very seasoned veterans at this point. One of my most fun moments is when Steve Jobs flew me out at his expense to see the premiere of “Toy Story I,” and I got a signed book on the making of it with Steve’s inscription: “You made it so.”

1 thought on “The Creative Mind: Andries “Andy” van Dam

  1. Andy doesn't mention that, along with Sam Matsa of IBM, he founded one of the premier technical professional organizations in the world, ACM SIGGRAPH. ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the primary professional group for computer science and technology and SIGGRAPH is the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics. Their two major conferences, SIGGRAPH and SIGGRAPH ASIA, are huge events attracting tens of thousands of researchers, engineers, visionaries, and — inevitably — marketing people. 

    He also doesn't mention that he and Dick Wexelblat received the first two PhDs in Computer Science awarded in this country, from Penn in 1966. Wex is always listed first, but no one knows why; that's certainly not alphabetical. van Dam was attracted to Brown by a large rug hanging on the front wall of the computer lab.

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