How David Hedgley’s contributions to computing earned him the name of father of 3D graphics

BY Preta Peace Namasaba July 5, 2024 5:37 AM EDT
David Hedgley, father of 3D graphics.

David Rice Hedgley, Jr. has been described as the father of 3D graphics. His paper explaining the solution to the groundbreaking hidden-line problem in computer 3D graphics was initially met with criticism. Today, Hedgley’s algorithm is used to display 3D graphics in video games and websites.

Hedgley was born in Chicago in 1937 to a prominent Baptist minister who was a civil rights activist and a mother who was a schoolteacher. His family moved to Florida when he was a toddler and later to North Carolina. As a child, the future computing innovator was surprisingly uninterested in mathematics or computers. He instead was drawn to linguistics while growing up. Hedgley pursued his fascination with science and majored in biology and chemistry at Virginia Union University.

He ultimately developed a passion for math and pursued it following his undergraduate. Hedgley earned a master’s degree in mathematics at Michigan State University in 1961. He worked as a teacher for a while before working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center in California in 1966.

At NASA, Hedgley worked as a computer programmer and was often exposed to complex mathematical problems. Computer-generated graphics had only been recently conceptualized and were in high demand in the aerospace engineering industry. To improve the process, scientists at the Ames Research Center needed to graphically represent the in-flight stability of aircraft as a mathematical function of two variables. Hedgley decided to take on the challenge and devise an algorithm that could produce 3D graphics both accurately and efficiently.

He demonstrated a way to determine whether a line of a 3D object should be visible by choosing just a few points from that line. This theorem is popularly known as Hedgley’s Algorithm and provided a foundation for more efficient algorithms. His algorithm was the first general solution to the hidden-line problem and came with no limitations.

Although Hedgley had solved the decades-old problem of computer graphics, his approach was initially met with skepticism from the scientific community. He had to write a letter to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to defend his theorem against criticism. It took more than a year for Hedgley’s algorithm to be widely recognized as a breakthrough in computer graphics.

Hedgley went on to design yet another breakthrough innovation in 1999. He created a complex algorithm to efficiently route signal-conducting wires on a printed circuit board. This immensely reduced the time and expense of finding a route and structuring support between electrical and circuit components.

In 1983, Hedgley was honored with NASA’s Exceptional Engineering Achievement Award and the Ames Research Center’s H. Julian Allen Award for pure research innovation a year later. He received NASA’s Space Act Award in 1985. Hedgley’s algorithm is still used today to display 3D graphics in video games, websites, and other mediums.