William A. Wulf, a pioneering researcher, entrepreneur and policymaker in computer science, who helped adapt an early Pentagon communications web into the network that eventually grew into the internet, died on March 10 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 83.
The University of Virginia confirmed his death, in a hospice, but did not give a cause.
Mr. Wulf made a career in computer science when the field barely existed. As the importance of computers grew, his career became a road map of the developing field: first in academic research, next as an entrepreneur, and then as a policymaker. He later led efforts to reshape and inspire thinking about the conduct, progress and ethics of engineering.
William Allan Wulf was born in Chicago on Dec. 8, 1939, the only son of an engineer who was disabled at a young age by Parkinson’s disease. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
As a graduate student at the University of Virginia in 1968, Mr. Wulf was one of the first people to receive a doctorate in computer science, a new academic offspring of applied mathematics, electrical engineering and related disciplines.
After completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a center of computer science research. There, he worked on computer architecture and programming languages, particularly compilers, which translate programs written in so-called “high level” languages, like today’s Java or C++, into steps a computer can execute.
He and his wife, Anita K. Jones, also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, left the university in 1981 to found Tartan Laboratories, which specialized in compilers (and was named for the university’s athletic teams).
By the time Mr. Wulf and Jones left the company, in 1988, it was being cited as one of the high-tech companies transforming Pittsburgh from a rusting steel town into a high-tech powerhouse. It was later sold to Texas Instruments.
Mr. Wulf and Jones moved to faculty positions at the University of Virginia, but Mr. Wulf took a leave of absence to join the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation. There, he worked with Al Gore, then a senator, to craft legislation to make the military’s computer network, Arpanet, available to civilian researchers through the foundation’s NSFnet. That model gave way, eventually, to widely accessible, commercially operated networks.
According to the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional group, Mr. Wulf was “among a very small, distinguished group of people that made significant, core contributions to the creation of the modern internet.”
In 1990, he returned to the University of Virginia, whose computer science program had become a separate department in 1984 and was chaired by Jones. She survives him, along with their two daughters, Ellen Wulf Epstein and Karin Wulf, and four grandsons.
Over the years, he was honored by every major professional society in computer science, as well as the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups.
In 1993, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and in 1996 he was appointed its interim president — in part, the academy said in a statement about his death, to “restore its focus” and repair its frayed relations with the Academies of Medicine and Sciences. The next year he was elected to complete that presidential term and in 2001 he was elected to a full six-year term.
Today, many engineers — and even many computer scientists — know him less for his technical accomplishments than for his work at the academy, where, among other things, he theorized about the factors necessary to encourage engineering innovation (tax credits are ineffective, he contended, and monopolies are not necessarily a bad thing); argued ardently for greater diversity in the field (because it pays economic dividends); and, in one of his last official acts, established the Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society, which has produced reports offering guidance for dealing with complex technologies, including in genetics research and the teaching of evolution.
“The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of ethical issues that engineers had not been thinking about,” he said in a 2008 interview describing the center.
“I don’t mean to diminish his technical contributions,” Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, said in an interview. Both Mr. Wulf and Jones “are giants in the field,” he said, but Mr. Wulf will be most remembered for his inspiring leadership in engineering.
In particular, he said, Mr. Wulf was “a huge champion of broadening participation in the field” by not only women and members of other underrepresented groups, but also people who did not necessarily come from “big research universities, mostly on the coasts.”
Mr. Wulf called engineering “problem-solving under constraints” — time, money or other practical issues. Bringing diverse experiences and points of view to problems, he said, raises the odds of success. Without diverse views, he told an academy meeting in 1998, “we pay an opportunity cost. A cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented.”
Or, as Lazowska put it: “You don’t have to have a social conscience. All you have to be is a capitalist who wants to make better things and sell more of them.”
After leaving his post at the academy, Mr. Wulf returned to the University of Virginia. But he resigned in protest in 2012 after the university’s Board of Visitors, in a dispute partly over what some members viewed as excessive spending on the humanities and not enough on online learning, forced the resignation of its president, Teresa Sullivan. She was rehired two weeks later after widespread protests.
Despite pleas, including from student protesters carrying placards praising “Our hero Wulf,” Mr. Wulf refused to return, saying he could not accept the board’s “command and control” approach, which he called “the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen.”
In discussing the joys of engineering, he often referred to a situation he encountered when he was a student at the University of Illinois, working at a summer job for a company that made automatic phone dialers.
The company was making a machine that read telephone numbers from holes punched in plastic cards. Periodically, the cards jammed and the machine broke down.
But when he looked at the device, he recalled in an interview years later, he had “a Eureka moment.” He could see what the problem was and how to fix it, and when he made a cardboard mock-up of his design, it worked.
His idea won him a bonus, he said, but his real reward was “the creative thrill” of engineering — designing something that solves a human problem.
“It’s addictive,” he said.