Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Questionable Fact: Fu Ping's Position in NCSA and Mosaic Project

The Original Story:
One of the intriguing highlights in Fu Ping's story was her proclaimed role in the development of Mosaic browser, which eventually became part of the foundation of the modern Internet in the forms of Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc. In Bend, Not Break, she recalls on Pages 103-104:
In 1992, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and was able to hire a few students to work with me at NCSA. One of them was Marc Andreessen, a witty, upbeat, and extremely bright undergraduate who had done some user interface programming in Austin, Texas, as a summer intern at IBM. We talked about building a browser, which is a graphic user interface to manage our public domain Web site at NCSA.
The Later Story:
In her speech at UNC in 2010, Fu Ping elaborated a little further on her position in that project:
We had a 40 million dollars annual budget and I was managing 10 million dollars in industrial relationship and 30 million federal government. So, we could actually do anything we wanted. I just happened to hire this student his name is Marc Andreessen.
The Debunking:
On Page 178 of Bend, Not Break, Fu Ping was reflecting on her reluctance of taking leadership in the earlier years of Geomagic years after NCSA:
At some point during the early daylight hours, I had an epiphany: I had given the leadership of Geomagic away because I had been scared of taking responsibility for the $6.5 million we had raised. On the surface, I had been proud of myself for putting my ego aside to step down as CEO, but what really had been guiding me was fear.
You wouldn't expect someone who had previously managed tens of million dollars sweat so much for $6.5 million.

The invention of the Mosaic browser is something of technological legend and has been well documented in a variety of forms. Fu Ping's contribution or even her name has never been mentioned in all but very few historical records -- with those few only traced back to her own words.

When she joined NCSA, Fu Ping had barely graduated with an MS degree from UIUC. It would be hard to imagine that she was in a leadership position managing millions of federal funding. Indeed, Cindy Hao, who investigated this matter, provides the following information:
According to NCSA's public affairs coordinator, Ping Fu joined the center in April 1991. Her job classification was "visiting research programmer" until she took a leave for Hong Kong in 1994.  
A "research programmer" who provides a mentoring role to undergraduate students on the project sounds a lot more reasonable given her credential and experiences at that point.

UPDATE (7/20/2013): Fu Ping's Visiting Res Programer position at NCSA has now been officially confirmed by University of Illinois.


  1. Are you saying that Ping Fu’s employment at NCSA was about 3 years from April 1991 to May 1994? Did Ping Fu officially work for NCSA in 1995?

    1. She took a leave from NCSA in 1994, probably for the academic year period of 1994-1995. She returned from HK in the summer of 1995 and resumed working at NCSA, until about two years later when she left to co-found Geomagic.

  2. Ping Fu submitted a 2-page resume as part of her National Science Foundation grant proposal 9200301 in October 1991.

    Ping Fu stated that she was Senior Research Programmer, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (April 1991 – Present)
    Visualize scientific data for electronic devices simulation in collaboration with the National Center for Computational Electronics. Support and enhance NCSA Polyview – an interactive graphics tool on Silicon Graphics 4D series. Design and develop a common data presentation for finite element data. Design and implement geometric algorithm for three dimensional generator. Create customized C modules for Application Visualization System (AVS) on Stardent computer.

    1. The author of NCSA Polyview is Brian Calvert as shown in the following web pages:

    2. Brian Calvert was a graduate student at NCSA between 1989 and 1991. Here is Brian Calvert's LinkedIn page:
      Only initial of his last name is shown there, but his identity is confirmed by his work experience and his patents.

  3. According to NSF’s Principal Investigator History Report dated October 24, 1991, the Principal Investigator for NSF Grant Proposal Number 9200301 is Ping Fu.

    Ping Fu requested $639,728 funding from the NSF.

    Lawrence Brandt, Associate Program Director at NSF, handled the review of Ping Fu’s proposal “Shapes for Modelling and Visualization”. According to Mr. Brandt, all reviewers pointed to the very high overall budget requested by Ping Fu. The feeling was that most of the algorithmic research is either already done or has adequate support from other NSF grants, and that the programming effort should not be as extensive as the proposal indicates. Also, the budget for equipment is quite high, considering the significant resources already in place at NCSA which would be available for the project.

    Lawrence Brandt of NFS wrote in his Memorandum dated March 20, 1992 that it seems to him that NSF support is justified at about $130,000.

  4. If Ping Fu initiated and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer, why there is no record of Ping Fu’s involvement in NCSA public information?

    Ping Fu’s name did not appear anywhere in NCSA’s Mosaic and the Web International Conference '94.