At the National Science Foundation in 1988, a new Associate Director, William Wulf, and a colleague exchanged ideas about the future of a dial-up network that was little known to the public and largely confined to science and federal agencies. Imagine, said the colleague, if this system were open to everyone.
“And that hit me like a blow,” recalls Dr. Wulf.
He’d already spent nearly two decades pioneering technology as the industry progressed from giant flashcard-fed mainframes to desktop PCs. Now came this radical idea: everyone with a modem connects to everyone else with a modem.
Within a few weeks, Dr. Wulf got in touch with Al Gore, then a Democratic Senator from Tennessee, who had been talking about the potential promise of the “data superhighway” for years. dr Wulf asked if Gore would lead efforts to remove government gatekeepers from the digital realm.
Gore helped push the changes through Congress — and was ridiculed in the process after making comments suggesting he “invented” the internet. dr Wulf, meanwhile, as head of the National Science Foundation’s computer and engineering directorate, oversaw changes to consolidate data-sharing technology first developed by the Pentagon and open it to civilian users.
The model was one of the most important building blocks of today’s internet.
But even the computer visionary Dr. Wulf, who died in Charlottesville on March 10 at the age of 83, could not have imagined at the time what was in store for him. “I don’t know where I was going,” he said in a 2015 oral history of the early days of the internet.
dr Wulf has done more than help drive the digital age throughout his career, which has included a tech start-up, policy-making positions, and teaching at universities such as the University of Virginia. He also tried to understand a world being stitched together by online technology.
dr Wulf carved out a role as a futurist, attempting to predict the ethical and economic frontiers of the future with advances such as consumer tracking algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. He wasn’t a dour peddler of runaway bots and stifling technology. Instead, he embraced digital innovation on fronts like improving medical treatments and reducing greenhouse gases.
It was only really alarming when it came to the innovators themselves. He lamented that high-tech science is too often isolated and tribal. dr Wulf encouraged more exchanges between universities, government research laboratories and private companies on the major challenges led by climate change.
He also advocated for more diversity and sought to expand the voice of women and other groups traditionally underrepresented in technology fields.
“We could reduce the world’s population by maybe 90 percent, or we could develop technology to sustain something like our current lifestyle,” he told a 2005 gathering at Washington’s Cosmos Club .”
He might also have a playful side. While at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he developed a programming language called BLISS, or Bill’s Language for Implementing System Software, which was later developed by Digital Equipment Corp. was acquired, once a prominent technology company.
In 2011, he helped develop a lightweight computer language at the University of Virginia that students could learn in a week. They called it IBCM: Itty Bitty Computing Machine.
The more people become computer literate, the more opportunities there are for that next big aha moment, he told an interviewer in 1998.
“Who knows where the next lightbulb will come from,” he said.
William Allan Wulf was born on December 8, 1939 in Chicago. His father was a mechanical engineer who had emigrated from Germany and his mother was a housewife.
He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1961 and a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1963. At the University of Virginia in 1968, he was among the first to enroll in the new computer science major, which was a combination of electrical engineering, applied mathematics, and other subjects.
He joined the growing computer research team at Carnegie Mellon, working on programming architectures such as compilers that “translate” source code into specific functions. In 1977, Dr. Wulf Anita Jones, also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon.
They left the university in 1981 to found Tartan Laboratories, a company specializing in compiler technology and one of the early technology firms in the Pittsburgh area as the region attempted to emerge from its Rust Belt past. The company was acquired by Texas Instruments in 1996. dr Wulf was also one of the founders of the Pittsburgh High Technology Council, now known as the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
In 1988 dr. Wulf and Jones join the faculty at the University of Virginia, but Dr. Wulf soon took leave to work at the National Science Foundation from 1988-1990. He returned to the University of Virginia as a professor. He also served as director of the National Academy of Engineering from 1996 to 2007, emphasizing programs that include initiatives to attract more students to engineering degrees.
He resigned from the university in 2012 as part of a broader dispute with the board over plans to reduce online learning programs and claims that some board members were out of touch with the university community. The dispute led to the departure of school president Teresa Sullivan, but she returned two weeks later following widespread campus protests.
dr Wulf said he had been asked to “resign” but stood by his decision, berating the oversight body called the Board of Visitors as “incompetent”.
“It’s not because I don’t love UVa and would love to work on his faculty again,” wrote Dr. Wulf in an open letter, “On the contrary, it’s precisely because I love and respect it so much!”
In addition to his wife, he leaves behind the daughters Ellen Wulf Epstein and Karin Wulf; and four grandchildren. The University of Virginia announced the death in a statement. No reason was given.
In addition to his digital world, Dr. Wulf a very practical site. His maternal grandfather, a carpenter, instilled in him a love of woodworking. dr Wulf had a workshop at his house — the “biggest, most expensive room in the house” — and eagerly offered to show his projects to an interviewer from the University of Minnesota in 2015.
dr Wulf pointed to a hexagonal table designed for small groups of students.
“I also designed this house,” he said.