William Newman obituary

Other lives: Pioneer in computer graphics

A pioneer in computer graphics and human-computer interaction, my friend William Newman, who has died aged 80, was, during the 1970s, a member of the team at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California that conceived and developed the kind of personal computers and local networks that people use today.

He refined and demonstrated the advantages of the “frame buffer” graphics display technology that is now operated universally, developing, in 1975, one of the first interactive programs for producing illustrations and drawings. He went on to help and inspire many others in the field of computer graphics and graphical interaction through the publication of the first textbook on the subject, Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics (1973), which he co-wrote with Robert Sproull.

William later made a valuable contribution to the field of human–computer interaction in a book, Interactive System Design, co-authored with Michael Lamming, which advocated an engineering approach to the design of interactive systems.

Born in Comberton, Cambridgeshire, William was the son of Lyn (nee Irvine), a writer linked to the Bloomsbury Group, and Max Newman, a mathematician and codebreaker who worked at Bletchley Park, Manchester University and Cambridge University.

Both of his parents encouraged their son’s intellectual development, and another key influence was Alan Turing, a family friend, whom William described as the perfect uncle.

William attended Manchester grammar school before obtaining a first-class degree in engineering at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961 and then a PhD at Imperial College, London. In the mid-60s he joined others in developing early computer-aided design applications on the PDP-7 computer installed at the Cambridge computer laboratory.

He worked at PARC between 1973 and 1979 as a member of the team charged with developing examples of the key technologies found in today’s computers and interactive devices. With Sproull he also created the press format for the description of pages of text and images for onward transmission or printing. This led to the development of the Postscript page description language and its well-known PDF derivative.

William returned to the UK in 1979, working at Logica and acting as an assistant director at the Department of Trade and Industry’s Alvey Directorate, before returning to a research position at the newly established Xerox European Research Centre in Cambridge in 1988, where he led a team working on human–computer interaction.

He moved to be an associate chair at University College London in 2001 before retiring in 2013. Playful, whimsical and kind, he was intellectually generous and the most effective computer programmer I have ever worked with.

William is survived by his second wife, Anikó Anghi, a teacher, whom he married in 1994, by his two children, Damien and Chantal, from his first marriage, to Karmen Guevara, which ended in divorce, by two stepchildren, Alice and Mathew, and by his brother Edward.

George Coulouris

The GuardianTramp

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