UCSB Engineering

February 2, 2000

Glen Culler, UCSB Engineering Professor Emeritus, Wins National Medal of Technology

Santa Barbara, Calif. -- Glen Culler, UCSB professor emeritus of electrical engineering, has been awarded the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest technology honor. President Clinton made the announcement Jan. 31. Culler was one of four individuals to receive 1999 Medals of Technology.

President Clinton will award the actual medals on March 14 at a ceremony to be held in the East Room of the White House.

Established by Congress in 1980 and administered by the Department of Commerce, the National Medal of Technology "recognizes technological innovation and advancement of the nation's global competitiveness, as well as ground-breaking contributions that commercialize a technology, create jobs, improve productivity, or stimulate the nation's growth and development in other ways," according to the White House press release.

Culler was cited "for pioneering innovations in multiple branches of computing, including early efforts in digital speech processing, invention of the first on-line system for interactive graphical mathematics computing and pioneering work on the ARPAnet."

Said Culler, "It makes me feel wonderful to be recognized for a life's work that gave me so much pleasure. I was educated as a mathematician and a scientist. I saw early on that computers could be used to help us figure out how to solve problems, not just to crank through the numbers after we figured out the hard part. But we needed to be able to interact with the computer through our hands, eyes, ears, and even speech. This challenge led to many breakthroughs."

UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, himself an aerospace engineer by profession, applauded the selection of Culler for the National Medal of Technology. "Glen Culler is a person of rare vision; he saw the computer as an extension of human intuition and intellect. And his clever technological innovations did so such to make that vision today's reality. He also exerted a powerful influence on the technological development of the Santa Barbara community -- more than 25 high-tech companies here have spun off from interactions with the mind of this mathematician-turned-computer scientist."

Asked to single out Culler's most important contribution, UCSB colleague Roger Wood, emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science, said, "Glen's greatest accomplishment was insight into and work on behalf of interactive graphics as key to the development of computing. Forty years ago people tended to equate computers with computational power and computer output with lists of numbers. You put equations in and you got a string of solutions. But Glen foresaw that people would someday sit at a computer and solve problems in real time by interacting directly through graphical representations."

Wood points out how Culler insisted, against the prevailing wisdom of the early 1960s, that both lower and upper case letters (the prerequisite for the then unrealized application of word processing) be included in the ASCII character code standard. "Glen even went to Washington to make the case," Wood recalled.

Culler's notable accomplishments include the following, ordered chronologically:

He and UCLA colleague Burton Fried designed and implemented the first interactive, mathematically based, on-line graphic system -- thereby pioneering the now core concept of a graphical user interface as the most natural way to communicate with a computer.

He created at UCSB the first computer classroom in which students sat at workstations networked to a computer. That pioneering venture included a number of technological leaps:
To provide inexpensive display screens for the workstations, Culler adapted storage oscilloscopes.
In order to manage the multiple workstations, his group invented one of the first multi-programming multi-tasking operating systems.
To draw characters and graphs efficiently, Culler himself invented a method of vector graphics still used in high-performance graphics systems today.
His research group developed the concept of function keys, which led, in turn, to designing and building a keyboard that incorporated function keys.
His work which enabled networking of workstations both on and off campus (called the "On-Line System") led to the selection of UCSB as one of the four original sites of the ARPAnet, which ultimately evolved into the Internet.

Culler then teamed up with UCSB engineers to design analog-to-digital converters for his on-line systems and made some of the world's first digital recordings.

Culler's mathematical work on signal-processing and what came to be called "the theory of wavelets" helped to lay the groundwork for the digital transmission, processing, and analysis of speech -- the basis for telecommunications, voice-mail, computer games.

His work on computer architecture provided low-cost supercomputers in the 1970s and '80s and established Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) architectures, which are used in modern high-performance microprocessors.
An old friend, Doug Engelbart of the Bootstrap Institute, Fremont, Calif., best-known as creator of "the mouse," said, "I was most impressed by his brilliance and his creativity. But those attributes don't account for that brother-to-brother feeling between us. What does is that Glen is an extremely fine human being."

Alluding to the stroke Culler suffered in the 1980s which impaired his ability to communicate easily by mouth or by hand, Englebart said, "It is like a 500 horsepower engine with a broken transmission. All that cerebral power can't get out."

Educated as a pure mathematician at Berkeley and UCLA, Culler worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory from 1951 to 1956. He joined the UCSB mathematics faculty in 1959. Two years later he took a leave from UCSB to serve until 1964 as assistant director of the Computer Research Laboratory at Ramo-Wooldridge (now TRW). In 1966 Culler's departmental affiliation switched from Mathematics to Electrical Engineering, where he was based until 1984.

In 1971 he formed Culler-Harrison Inc., a Goleta-based company for making digital recordings. Culler-Harrison evolved into Culler Scientific Systems, a company which initially specialized in the design of hardware for signal-processing applications.

Created for a symposium held in 1995 at UCSB to honor him was a T-shirt whose words sum up the man, "Glen Culler Imagineer."


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