David Fulton recounts the early history of BGSU computer science


David Fulton giving a speech during the second day of the computer science department’s 50th anniversary.


Maxwell Brickner and Maxwell Brickner

During the second day of the computer science department’s 50th anniversary, the first department chair David Fulton gave a speech entitled “Tales of an Old Fox,” starting with a self-deprecating joke: “So many people have referred to me as distinguished, it’s more like extinguished.”

Fulton briefly recalled how he started computing with a mechanical Friden calculator, and later began using a proper computing platform, IBM’s QUIKTRAN.

He recalled his time as a graduate student while also performing in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, skimping on meals to save what little money he had.

Then he accepted a consulting job with his employer, who wanted a job that would usually take months done in just a few weeks.

Fulton recalled negotiating his fee: “I said one of the wisest things I said in my life — ‘I’ll get back to you.’” He asked a knowledgeable friend and found out the work he was going to charge $100 for was worth closer to $3,500. 

Recounting his time predicting solar weather for the military, he recalled having the right clearance to program a computer at NORAD headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, but not to actually see the computer. He recalled, “It’s the first and only time my program ran the first time.”

Fulton recounted the efforts of his predecessors to establish a computer science department, starting on March 16, 1962 and ending in December 1968 when the department was finally established.

He attributed the department’s existence to the faculty who fought hard for its establishment. He added President Jerome’s commitment to improving academics — despite his lack of computing knowledge — was helpful.

“The president had no idea what a computer was,” Fulton said. 

In early 1970, Fulton came to Bowling Green for an interview, accepting a position because “they offered more money than anyone else,” and he liked the small-town atmosphere.

He recounted the tense atmosphere on campus after the Kent State shootings, which occurred on May 4, 1970. As the only state school in Ohio to remain open immediately following the shootings, he recounted how professors were able to defuse tensions by offering small outdoor classes such as “Bullshit 101.” He gave his official start date as July 1, 1970.

A new department needed new faculty, and Fulton set out to recruit the best. While recruiting near Anaheim, California, he interviewed a doctor of computer science — who was in high demand and booked up with interviews. Fulton invited her to Disneyland and she accepted, missing her other interviews and ultimately choosing Bowling Green.

He described the new department as “Young Turks” with a “blank canvas.” At the time, the university had an IBM 360/50 which was inadequate for the computing needs of the campus.

He expressed disappointment that BGSU President Hollis Moore listened to a consultant over him and purchased an outdated IBM 360/75 from Ohio State University, instead of his preferred 1108 Univac. He recalled the consultant saying “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

The department set up its first small computer lab, using a cheap minicomputer, a Data General NOVA 800.

“It was a tremendous instruction tool and heavily used from day one,” Fulton said. He also recalled his work on a small Operating System, assembler and editor for the machine.

Eventually he approached Owens-Illinois to acquire one of their Digivue DS-1 plasma displays, spurring a local interest in computer graphics. This small early flat-panel display was one of the first to be used on small computers, and was an appropriate choice for the school, as the only color it could display was orange.

Fulton described how the university hosted the second ever SIGGRAPH conference in 1975. Today SIGGRAPH is one of the most important conferences on computer graphics in the world, but at the time there were only around 300 people in attendance.

Fulton recounted that computer science department was unable to pursue cutting edge computer graphics beyond that time, primarily due to the inability of the department to afford a framebuffer, then a $15,000 device.

In 1980, Fulton resigned as computer science chair to become an entrepreneur. Fulton recounted his time at DACOR, and briefly touched on his time at Fox Software. 

“The BGSU CS program was a critical factor in Fox Software’s success,” he said. Eventually he sold Fox Software to Microsoft.

He described Bill Gates glowingly: “Gates treated us in a very gentlemanly way when he acquired Fox Software.”

Reaction among audience members to the speech was positive.

Robert Green, computer science professor, said, “David Fulton’s guidance and vision shaped the computer science department for the better.”

Spencer Wolf, a sophomore computer science major and president of the BGSU chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, said, “Dr. Fulton gave great insight into what can be accomplished with conviction and vision in the future.”