At the National Science Foundation in 1988, a new assistant director, William Wulf, and a colleague swapped ideas about the future of a dial-up network that was barely known to the public and restricted mostly to academia and federal agencies. Imagine, the colleague said, if this system was open to everyone.
“And that hit me like a ton of bricks,” Dr. Wulf recalled.
He had already spent nearly two decades as a tech pioneer while the industry advanced from giant mainframes fed by index cards to desktop PCs. Now came this radical idea: anybody with a modem connecting to everybody else with a modem.
Within weeks, Dr. Wulf was in contact with Al Gore, then a Democratic senator from Tennessee, who for years had been talking up the potential promise of the “data superhighway.” Dr. Wulf asked if Gore would spearhead efforts to drop the government gatekeepers from the digital domain.
Gore helped push the changes through in Congress — becoming lampooned in the process after making comments suggesting he “invented” the internet. Dr. Wulf, meanwhile, as head of the National Science Foundation’s computer and engineering directorate, oversaw changes to consolidate the data-sharing technology, first developed by the Pentagon, and open it up to civilian users.
The model was one of the key building blocks of what became the internet of today.
Yet even the computer visionary Dr. Wulf, who died March 10 in Charlottesville at age 83, could not conceive of what was ahead at the time. “I don’t know where I was headed,” he said in a 2015 oral history on the beginnings of the internet.
Dr. Wulf’s did more than help shepherd the digital age during his career, which included a tech start-up, policymaking roles and teaching at campuses including the University of Virginia. He also tried to make sense of a world that became stitched together by online technology.
Dr. Wulf staked out a role as a futurist, trying to predict the ethical and economic frontiers ahead with advances such as consumer-tracking algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. He was not a gloom-monger of runaway bots and suffocating technology. Instead, he embraced digital innovation on fronts such as improving medical treatments and reducing greenhouse gases.
He was only truly alarmist when it came to innovators themselves. He complained that high-tech science is too often insular and tribal. Dr. Wulf encouraged more exchanges between universities, government research labs and private companies on the biggest challenges, led by climate change.
He advocated for more diversity as well: seeking to expand the voice of women and other groups traditionally underrepresented in technology fields.
“We could reduce the population of the Earth by perhaps 90 percent or we may engineer technology to sustain something like our current lifestyle,” he told a gathering at Washington’s Cosmos Club in 2005. “What is worrisome is that as long as the technological culture does not communicate, which it has made little attempt to do, we are really not making progress.”
He could have a playful side, too. While at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he developed a programming language dubbed BLISS, or Bill’s Language for Implementing System Software, which was later adopted by Digital Equipment Corp., once a prominent tech firm.
In 2011, at the University of Virginia, he co-created a stripped-down computer language that could be learned by students in a week. They called it IBCM: the Itty Bitty Computing Machine.
The more people who are computer literate, the more opportunities for the next big aha moment, he told an interviewer in 1998.
“Who knows where the next lightbulb will come from,” he said.
William Allan Wulf was born on Dec. 8, 1939, in Chicago. His father was a mechanical engineer who had emigrated from Germany and his mother was a homemaker.
He studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1961 and a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1963. At the University of Virginia in 1968, he was among the first to receive a doctorate in the new discipline of computer science, which was a combination of studies in electrical engineering, applied mathematics and other fields.
He joined the growing computer research team at Carnegie Mellon, working on programming architecture such as compilers, which “translate” source code into specific functions. In 1977, Dr. Wulf married Anita Jones, also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon.
They left the university in 1981 to found Tartan Laboratories, a company that specialized in compiler technology and was among the early tech firms in the Pittsburgh area as the region tried to move beyond its rust belt past. The company was acquired by Texas Instruments in 1996. Dr. Wulf was also a founder of Pittsburgh’s High Technology Council, known now as the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
In 1988, Dr. Wulf and Jones joined the University of Virginia faculty, but Dr. Wulf soon took a leave to serve at the National Science Foundation from 1988 to 1990. He returned to the University of Virginia as a professor. He also served as head of the National Academy of Engineering from 1996 to 2007, emphasizing programs that including initiatives to bring more students into engineer studies.
He resigned from the university in 2012 as part of wider dispute with the governing board over plans to cut back on online learning programs and assertions that some board members were out of touch with the university community. The quarrel led to the departure of the school’s president, Teresa Sullivan, but she returned two weeks later after widespread campus protests.
Dr. Wulf said he was asked to “un-resign,” but stood by his decision and lambasted as “incompetent” the oversight panel called the Board of Visitors.
“It is not because I don’t love UVa, and would love to rejoin its faculty,” Dr. Wulf wrote in an open letter, “quite the opposite, it’s precisely because I do love and respect it so much!”
Besides his wife, he is survived by daughters Ellen Wulf Epstein and Karin Wulf; and four grandsons. The University of Virginia announced the death in a statement. No cause was given.
In addition to his digital world, Dr. Wulf nurtured a very practical side. His maternal grandfather, a carpenter, instilled a love of woodworking. Dr. Wulf had a workshop in his home — the “biggest and most expensive room in the house” — and eagerly offered to show his projects to a visiting interviewer from the University of Minnesota in 2015.
Dr. Wulf pointed to a hexagonal table designed for meeting small groups of students.
“I also designed this house,” he said.