SIGGRAPH 1986 Computer Graphics Achievement Award: Whitted

  • ©1986, John Turner Whitted



    Computer Graphics Achievement Award


    Dr. Turner Whitted is being recognized for his important contribution to ray tracing. In computer graphics, and computing in general, many techniques are implemented but await higher speed hardware and larger-sized memory to achieve acceptable or improved performance. Often such techniques have flaws which must be overcome by complex exceptions or consideration of special cases. That was the situation in the early applications of ray tracing.

    Turner Whitted did not invent ray tracing. Instead, he contributed what so many wish to contribute: a simple and elegant algorithm which, in this case, made the ray tracing technique not only scrutable but also more efficient. The need for special cases was eliminated; he was the first to show the world how to do it. His papers, and his film The Compleat Angler, inspired thousands of people to write their own ray tracing programs. By making a complicated problem simple Whitted made it possible for practitioners and students alike to gain first-hand experience with synthetic image processing. They could realize a working solution, and recognize significant principles of computing and computer graphics, without having to code for many months. Essentially all the beautiful ray tracing pictures and animations that exist today are based on the original work of Turner Whitted.

    Dr. Whitted was educated at Duke University, receiving a BSE degree in electrical engineering in 1969 and an MS degree the following year. He was granted the PhD degree in electrical engineering by North Carolina State University in 1978. For the next five years he was a Member of the Technical Staff at the Computer Systems Research Laboratory of Bell Laboratories.

    In 1983 he “returned home” to North Carolina as founder and Technical Director of Numerical Design, Ltd., a firm which produces image rendering software. Since 1982 he has been an Adjunct Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    His achievements go beyond the ray tracing algorithm. An important 1980 paper on scan line methods for display of parametric surface was editorially crafted from the work of three different sets of authors, of whom Whitted was one. With Rubin, he published a paper showing the importance of a consistent treatment of coherence to optimize the speed of ray tracing. Despite numerous attempts this result has not been supplanted. Whitted published an article in Science that brought computer graphics to the attention of perhaps the largest single readership of scientists.

    Turner Whitted has shown us the importance of simplicity and elegance. As a colleague has said: “Turner is an extraordinarily humble and generous person, and an example of non-stop creativity.”

    SIGGRAPH recognizes the contributions of Dr. Turner Whitted by presenting him the 1986 ACM/SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Achievement Award.


    ACM SIGGRAPH Press Release, 2010