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Richardson Inducted into Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame

11/4/2013 12:56:00 PM By Tom Moone, CS @ ILLINOIS

For most people, when you find yourself sitting in the chair at the dentist, you’re probably anticipating bad news. Having something good happen at such a moment would be a rather pleasant surprise.

So you can imagine how CS alumnus Fontaine Richardson (PhD ’68) felt when he learned—while sitting in just such a dental chair—that he would be inducted into the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame.

Fontaine Richardson was one of six recognized at the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. From left: University of Illinois President Robert Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Fontaine Richardson, and College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris.
Fontaine Richardson was one of six recognized at the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. From left: University of Illinois President Robert Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Fontaine Richardson, and College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris.
Fontaine Richardson was one of six recognized at the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. From left: University of Illinois President Robert Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Fontaine Richardson, and College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris.

“I was euphoric,” said Richardson. “I don’t have an accurate way to say what I felt. It took me by surprise.”

He need not have been so surprised. Since leaving the University of Illinois, Richardson has been one of the dominant people in the area of research and development of computer-aided design tools.

When he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1968, Richardson held just the second PhD ever granted by the Department of Computer Science. His dissertation described a flowchart programming language that was used in the ILLIAC II computing system.

It was a time when a PhD in computer science in general was rare. They were considered an exotic quantity. “I got some job interviews I think in part because people wanted to see what a PhD in computer science would look like,” Richardson said.

But he had skills that were in demand. When he did land a job, it was at the Lincoln Laboratories at MIT. There he worked with a group that was using a computer to design electronic circuits. He met some colleagues who believed that the technology of using a computer to help in the design process could be developed into a marketable product. In 1969, Richardson and three colleagues founded Applicon, Inc., to commercialize the work that they had been doing at MIT. In 1971 that company released the first commercially available computer-aided design system. This was the first product in what has become a tremendously important manufacturing area.

“It’s just everywhere,” Richardson said. “There really aren’t any products designed today that aren’t done with computer tools very similar to what we pioneered.”

The system Richardson and his colleagues designed used what appears to be modest amounts of computing power when compared to systems available today. At the time, though, this system represented the cutting edge of technology in that field. Richardson states that in designing and coding this new system, “I used all the knowledge I acquired at Illinois in this work.”

Richardson later left Applicon to become an independent consultant and visiting scientist at MIT. In 1983 he joined Eastech Management Company, a venture capital firm, from which venue he served as technical director and a board member for a number of high-tech companies.

Richardson is a recipient of the University of Illinois College of Engineering Alumni Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering.

In his remarks at the Hall of Fame ceremony, Richardson stated, “I want to thank the University of Illinois for teaching me to be curious, to learn, and to grow—skills I have used all my life.”