William Fetter, E.A.T., and 1960s Computer Graphics Collaborations in Seattle

  • By Robin Oppenheimer
  • Posted 4/12/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20542
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William Fetter (1928-2002) worked at Boeing in the 1950s and 1960s and invented early computer graphics applications. He also helped found a Seattle chapter of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) at the Henry Art Gallery in 1968, bringing together artists and engineers in Seattle and Portland. This essay, originally posted on the Academia.edu website, is by Robin Oppenheimer (b. 1952), who met and interviewed Fetter before his death as part of her research into the E.A.T. chapter for a Reunion Symposium at the Henry Art Gallery on October 25 and 26, 2002.

Art, Science, and Computers

"The artist and the scientist will emerge as the most creative and significant societal members. With an active interaction with technology, true collaborative works of science-art will emerge ... In this future society, instantaneous visual, audio, and pseudophysiological communication will enable a hopefully enlightened mass culture to experience, in a total environmental synthesis, the meaning and import of the science-art experience. As for the proponents of the science-art syndrome, the near-future will undoubtedly lead to an extremely high level of functional cooperation between the artist and the scientist" (Krantz, 29).

"It is quite clear in what direction man's symbiotic relation to the computer is headed: if the first computer was the abacus, the ultimate computer will be the sublime aesthetic device: a parapsychological instrument for the direct projection of thoughts and emotions" (Youngblood, 189).

"My conviction about the possible change in some creative processes brought about by the computer is that speculation in this matter is valuable so long as it is coupled with a conscious effort to shape the technology toward meeting basic human goals -- including human creativity. I feel it is not completely a question of what the computer will do TO us, but a determination of what we will best have the computer do FOR us. Just as important is an assurance that a necessarily diverse group is in a position to make these basic decisions" (Fetter, 32).

Machines we now know as computers were initially invented to rapidly calculate, or compute, vast arrays of numbers. Coming mostly from the realms of science, engineering and mathematics, there was initially little thought given to artistic applications, or to the idea of artists using computers. Historically, the worlds of science and art rarely come together, and have, for the most part, spoken different languages and created different cultures. This all changed with the evolution of the computer and other communications technologies in the mid-twentieth century. As computers became more powerful, their range of applications expanded with the creativity of the programmers, engineers, and artists who found themselves working together with these increasingly flexible, even creative, machines.

A. Michael Noll, a pioneer in three-dimensional computer films at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s, explained the computer's active role in the creative process as it existed then: "Most certainly the computer is an electronic device capable of performing only those operations that it has been explicitly instructed to perform. This usually leads to the portrayal of the computer as a powerful tool but one incapable of any true creativity. However, if 'creativity' is restricted to mean the production of the unconventional or the unpredicted, then the computer should instead be portrayed as a creative medium -- an active and creative collaborator with the artist ... because of the computer's great speed, freedom from error, and vast abilities for assessment and subsequent modification of programs, it appears to us to act unpredictably and to produce the unexpected. In this sense the computer actively takes over some of the artist's creative search. It suggests to him syntheses that he may or may not accept. It possesses at least some of the external attributes of creativity" (Noll, 91).

William Fetter

This is the story of how a graphic artist, working inside the nascent world of mid-twentieth century mainframe computers via the aerospace industry, was one of the first people to imagine computers as an artist's tool that could draw pictures. In his case, he enabled the computer to rapidly create an endless progressive series of complex three-dimensional perspective drawings to simulate a pilot's point of view while flying. William Fetter, a graphic designer working at The Boeing Company in the late 1950s, instinctively understood how computers could be used to help airplane designers and engineers envision on a computer screen the diverse human body shapes and a pilot's limited vision in a cockpit as a plane lands. By collaborating with fellow computer programmers and engineers, he drew the very first three-dimensional human figure and moving simulations using a computer. He helped coin the term "computer graphics" and thus launched both a revolutionary new application for computers that is now accessible to anyone with a computer, and a multi-billion dollar computer animation and games industry.

In addition, Fetter's subsequent artistic work with computers, and his participation in the international Art and Technology movement of the 1960s, also inspired him to support a new collaborative community of artists and engineers that was developing in Seattle and Portland. In 1968 he helped establish a Pacific Northwest chapter of the New York City-based Experiments in Art and Technology. Because of his efforts to bring artists and engineers together, Seattle artist Doris Chase collaborated with Boeing engineers and local filmmakers Robert Brown and Frank Olvey, as well as with composer Morton Subotnik, to create an early computer-generated film called "Circles I" that is now recognized as a classic in early computer films.

William Fetter was born in Independence, Missouri, in 1928. He was trained as an artist and graphic designer, earning a BFA from the University of Illinois in 1952. Before college, he worked in several art jobs in Kansas City then went into the service, where he headed a training aids department for the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. In 1950 he joined the University of Illinois Press where he designed publications, exhibits and posters as he earned his degree. His interest in the application of the digital computer to graphic art problems began when he was art director for Family Weekly in Chicago, where he redesigned the entire magazine. As he explained in an article he wrote for Print magazine in 1966, "I found that frequent last-minute advertising changes that were dropped in my lap could upset the design of an entire issue. I started working with a computing manager to automatically make up magazine dummies and their innumerable changes" (Fetter, 32). Before these computer aids could be completed, Fetter accepted an art director's position at The Boeing Company in Wichita, Kansas, where he brought his burgeoning interest in computers as drawing tools.

Computer Graphics

The term "computer graphics" was born at the Wichita Branch of the Military Aircraft Systems Division of Boeing in 1960, where Fetter was the Supervisor of Advanced Design Graphics. He was charged with exploring new graphics techniques that would lead to the development of true perspective drawings by the computer to support the design of jet airplanes. He worked collaboratively with Boeing staff and two summer faculty, Walter Bernhardt, an Assistant Professor of Applied Mechanics from the University of Wichita, and Richard Reinhardt, Associate Director, Industrial Design Department of the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. Fetter's department had access to powerful mainframe computer technology and engineering expertise that he needed to begin testing his ideas about how the computer could be used to create three-dimensional drawings that could also be sequentially drawn and animated on film.

Like so many new technological developments, this one came out of collaborative brainstorming sessions that included Fetter, Bernhardt, Reinhardt, and Boeing staff from the Digital Computing Unit. Fetter, with his art and design background, described the many areas of art that included perspective, which was predictable and controllable, which might be successfully programmed by a computer. He and Bernhardt found they had an unusual rapport in their thinking, and pursued the problem together, working nights and weekends. Fetter outlined a new concept of perspective, abandoning the accepted academic drawing methods, and Bernhardt grasped the approach and made the conversion to mathematics. This was turned over to the programmer who translated the math to computer language. To process a test, data from an aircraft drawing was supplied to a computer. Only two months after their first meeting in June, the Boeing team had successfully produced their first true perspective plot drawing using a computer and mechanical drawing arm (Fetter, 36).

By November 1960, a formal research program was established by Boeing, and management of the Research and Development project was assigned to Fetter, who was later transferred to the Seattle office in 1963. With his team of engineers and computer specialists, Fetter began to develop computer-created one-second interval drawings of simulated views from a moving airplane cockpit during an airport landing. This was the primitive beginning of the current billion-dollar computer graphics and computer animation industries, with their full-color life-like animated sequences of cartoon characters, moving car chases and fight scenes now found in hundreds of movies and interactive computer and video games.

William Fetter and his Boeing supervisor, Vern Hudson, coined the term "computer graphics" to describe the use of a computer-controlled mechanical plotter to draw sequential still images, whether on paper, tapes or film. Their specific application involved visualizing all possible pilot and cockpit configurations in an aircraft that enabled engineers to design a limited space that would be efficient, economical, and comfortable for the pilot and copilot. As Gene Youngblood explains the computer-driven plotter technology in Expanded Cinema: "Through what is known as digital-to-analogue conversion, coded signals from a computer drive an armlike servomechanism that literally draws pen or pencil lines on flatbed or drum carriages. The resulting flow charts, graphs, isometric renderings, or realist images are incrementally precise but are too expensive and time-consuming for non-scientific movie purposes" (Youngblood, 194). He then notes that William Fetter used this system to make animated films for visualizing pilot and cockpit configurations in aircraft design, and he includes a full-page illustration of the plotter drawing Fetter's 3-D Man, along with an animated sequence of the Man.

The term "computer graphics" soon became a catchall designation of any graphic work produced with the assistance of a computer, including works by artists and more functional applications made by scientists and mathematicians. As Cynthia Goodman explained in her book about the history of computers and art called Digital Visions:

"The work of most scientists and artists capitalized on the number-crunching feats computers excel at. Early computer graphics were difficult to program, computer memory was limited, and therefore visual options were restricted. The only software and machinery available were designed for the mathematical and engineering problems that the machines were developed to handle. Artworks and scientific studies alike were based primarily on the effects achieved by the transformation of a linear configuration through one or more mathematical functions" (Goodman, 21).


While Fetter was discovering the collaborative process that enabled computers to draw, dancers, painters, musicians, and artists of all types in New York City were collaborating together on boundary-exploding, technology-based large multi-media art projects. During the early 1960s, they were producing projected-images-lights-sound-and-dance performances and day-long indoor and outdoor Happenings that often used films, radios, and other communications technologies. Greenwich Village-based artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, John Cage, Andy Warhol, and Stan VanDerBeek were collaborating with engineers from Bell Labs and experimenting with new technologies of the day. They routinely came together with other artists to share and create something grander and more complex -- festivals, theatrical events, and performances -- than they could produce alone in their studios.

Artists now had access to the new technologies of television, audiotape, 8mm and 16mm film. They understood the radical new ideas about media technologies being espoused by Marshall McLuhan that described how media shape consciousness and shrink the world to a global village, and they explored those ideas, along with many other groundbreaking concepts and artmaking processes, in their collaborative artworks. As the first generation to grow up watching television, they instinctively understood the powerful, seductive power and personal applications of media technologies much like the current generation understands the power and uses of personal computers, iPods, and wireless telephones.

Billy Kluver, a Swedish laser engineer working at Bell Labs, became friends with many of these artists and founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1967 with Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and others to help create new, more humane uses for technologies by purposefully enabling collaborations between artists and engineers. The historic 1966 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering performance series in New York City that inspired the formation of E.A.T. was a watershed event that anticipated many of the important ideas, aesthetics, and techniques of electronic media art of today. It was a catalytic phenomenon that encompassed all the visual, literary, and performing art forms in its network of collective collaborations of seminal mid-twentieth century artists living in a vibrant avant-garde arts community centered in Greenwich Village. These artists rebelled against the Cold War establishment culture and forged out of earlier avant-gardes like Dada and Surrealism the new values, beliefs, and practices of late twentieth century Postmodernism. 9 Evenings also represented the invention of an artist-centered collaborative approach to developing new technologies that is more pervasively practiced today.

Douglas Davis, a contemporary artist and journalist of that time explained this new approach to artmaking:

"I do contend ... that the process of collaboration itself has driven artists everywhere into a closer, more symbiotic relationship with technology than possible at any time in the past. The cause is clear. Collaboration enables the artist to obtain practical knowledge otherwise unavailable. He becomes familiar with his material. He discovers precisely what an audio circuit or a computer can do, when taken out of its original functional context. More often than not, he exploits what he knows far beyond the initial collaboration. He liberates the machine in spite of himself. He also liberates the engineer, to the point where the split between artist, engineer, and even machine ultimately disappears (Davis, 72)."

In 1965, Fetter attended a meeting at the Murray Hill, New Jersey, offices of Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he was the only one with an art background in a group that included Ken Knowlton and Ed Zajac of Bell Laboratories, George Michaels and Bob Crowley of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and others. He became an active participant in this larger experimental Art & Technology movement that included E.A.T. and many other artists and artist-centered groups who collaborated with technicians and engineers in the U.S. and Europe.

Fetter's 3-D Man computer drawings were also exhibited in the landmark London Institute of Contemporary Art's show "Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts" curated by Jasia Reichardt in 1968. This was one of the seminal artistic exhibitions of computer art and digital installations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it included most of the important contributors to the technology art world at the time, including Charles Csuri, Michael Noll, Nam June Paik, Frieder Nake, John Whitney, John Cage and others. Although it was not the first computer art exhibition, it is acknowledged as an important milestone in the recognition of this new medium in the art world. Curator Jasia Reichardt wrote that it showed how "man can use the computer and new technology to extend his creativity and inventiveness (Reichardt, 10-11)." It later traveled to Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in 1969 and 1970.

E.A.T. in the Northwest

While visiting New York City in 1967, Fetter learned about the newly-formed E.A.T. organization, and he felt that "the rich mix of art and technology interactions already in progress in the Northwest might benefit by tying in with that group." He then called on LaMar Harrington, the Associate Director of the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus, to host an introductory meeting of artists and engineers in Seattle. She had first heard about E.A.T. from artists who presented a photo show about Allan Kaprow's Happenings at the gallery.

Through the joint efforts of William Fetter and LaMar Harrington, the NorthWest Chapter of E.A.T. was founded in 1968 in Seattle and Portland. The first meeting was held in the Eames Theater at the Pacific Science Center on the Saturday morning of June 29, 1968, and was attended by more than fifty Oregon and Washington artists and technologists. It was organized and run by Fetter and Harrington, and artists that included Doris Chase, Robert Brown, and Jack Eyerly were in attendance.

From the notes written by the chapter secretary, M. F. Meer:

"The group in attendance represented many different media, including ... engineers, technicians and audio-visual display persons from engineering firms in the Seattle, Tacoma and Portland areas. Over fifty persons were represented, many volunteering their services; several offered equipment, technical information, etc. and one offered studio facilities in exchange for art materials and information" (E.A.T. minutes).

A local reporter who documented this first meeting, Jean Batie, wrote that "this group represented an astonishing variety of interests and disciplines. The single largest group, eighteen in all, were photographers and experimental film makers. There were sculptors, and seven engineers. (One problem the organization has had elsewhere has been the shortage of technically trained people.)" (Batie).

A short film called "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" made by Alfons Schilling was shown that documented the original ten performances produced by New York artists and engineers in that groundbreaking event. Three more films, including two made by local artists, were shown: a film by Norman McLaren showing the use of a computer as an animation device, "Sorcerer's Apprentice" by William Fetter and Hans Graf, and "Horses" by Robert Brown and Frank Olvey (later called "The Tempest"). "Sorcerer's Apprentice" was composed of colorized computer-drawn 2-D abstract geometric designs and images of Fetter's wire-frame 3-D Man that were animated and set to Mussorgsky's musical theme.

That first meeting of the E.A.T. chapter in Seattle was a historic gathering of artists and regional leaders in the worlds of science and the arts. Dr. Dixie Lee Ray, who was then the Director of the Pacific Science Center and later the governor of Washington, helped secure the location and was invited to give the welcoming address but could not attend. After introductions of everyone in the room, James Haseltine, the Executive Director of the Washington State Arts Commission, talked about the E.A.T. organization, after which the "9 Evenings" film was shown. The other films were shown after an open discussion and the election of a steering committee were held. Everyone's names, along with their interests and resources, were collected on paper, which then formed the network for hosting future meetings and helping to pair up people who might work together.

While planning the first meeting of the NorthWest Chapter in Seattle, Jack Eyerly organized a similar meeting in Portland the next day (June 30, 1968) at Patton Park. Eyerly was part of a family that invented and built airplanes and amusement park rides. He had recently visited Vancouver, Canada, where there was a new group of artists and technologists forming called Intermedia, which was also based on the principles of E.A.T. The Portland E.A.T. group was smaller, not supported by an art institution, and was held together by Eyerly's extraordinary networking, organizing and writing skills. He wrote newsletters, organized public art events, and helped connect artists with resources and people.

Films, Shows, and Happenings

Seattle painter and sculptor Doris Chase had already been collaborating with dancers, musicians, and filmmakers before the first E.A.T meetings. Living in both New York City and Seattle, she produced many new multimedia works, including a computer-drawn series of circles that were transferred to film, colorized by Seattle filmmakers Robert Brown and Frank Olvey, and set to the electronic music of Morton Subotnik ("Circles I"). In order for Chase to create "Circles I," William Fetter arranged for her to use the computer graphics software/hardware system he had been developing at the Boeing Company. As art historian Patricia Failing describes the collaborative process in her biography of Chase called Doris Chase: Artist in Motion:

"Chase was given after-hours access to a room-size computer and the assistance of programmer Robert Tinguely. Chase wanted to create an abstract film using concentric circles. The circles would, in effect, dance with one another. To communicate the images she had in mind, she made sequential drawings for Tinguely, who attempted to emulate them with his computer graphics systems. Together, artist and programmer worked out timing, direction of movement, and appearance and disappearance of the forms. When completed in 1970, the seven-minute film was scored by electronic music composer Morton Subotnik, who showed 'Circles I' during some of his performances in the early 1970s" (Failing, 27).

"Circles I" was an early artistic application of computer graphics programming that won many awards and has been widely shown at film festivals throughout the world.

After establishing the Pacific Northwest E.A.T. chapter, LaMar Harrington continued to present individual and group art shows at the Henry Gallery and Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair that featured artists using new technologies. They included the "Art and Machines: Motion Light Sound" show in August 1969 that borrowed machines from other UW departments and featured new works by Hans Haacke, Doris Chase, Larry Hansen, and others. She also presented films by Stan VanDerBeek and Michael Snow, with live music by Philip Glass, and multi-artist gallery and site installations. These included live music and outdoor happenings by Steve Soreff, who, among other large-scale public performances, choreographed earthmovers that were excavating UW's huge Red Square and underground parking garage near the gallery.

E.A.T. Reunion

William Fetter left Seattle soon after he helped establish the E.A.T. chapter in order to take a job in California. He worked for Graphcomp Sciences Corporation, where he created the first computer-generated images used in a commercial that aired on national television for the Norelco Corporation in 1969. He subsequently lost contact with Chase, Harrington, and the others who founded the E.A.T. chapter in the Pacific Northwest, but later returned to Seattle, where he lived until his unexpected death in July 2002.

Through my research into the history of the E.A.T. chapter as part of my Media-Arts-Historian-In-Residency at the Bellevue Art Museum in 2000, I was able to locate Mr. Fetter and present a two-day symposium that reunited Chase, Brown, Olvey, Harrington, and Eyerly with Billy Kluver, Robert Whitman and others. William Fetter's son was able to represent him at this E.A.T. Reunion, and this paper was written from my research, personal interviews, and access to Fetter's personal archives just before his death.


Stewart Krantz, Science and Technology in the Arts: A Tour Through the Realm of Science+Art, (Van Nostram Reinhold Co., 1974), 29; Michael Noll, "The Digital Computer as a Creative Medium," IEEE Spectrum, October 1967; William Fetter, "Computer Graphics at Boeing," Print magazine, November-December 1966; William Fetter, "The Art Machine," The Journal of Commercial Art & Design, Vol. 4, No. 2, February 1962; Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (E.P. Dutton and Co., 1970), 194; Cynthia Goodman, Digital Visions: Computers and Art (Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1987), 21; Douglas Davis, Art and the Future: A History/Prophecy of the Collaboration Between Science, Technology and Art (Praeger Publishers, 1973), 72; Jasia Reichardt (ed.), Cybernetic Serendipity (London: Studio International, 1968), 10-11; Original minutes of the E.A.T. meeting on June 29, 1968, written by M. F. Meer, from the personal archives of William Fetter; Jean Batie, The Seattle Times, 1968, undated clipping from Fetter archives; Patricia Failing, Doris Chase: Artist in Motion (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 27.

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