Unsung innovators: Lynn Conway and Carver Mead

They literally wrote the book on chip design

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

"Now, if we'd been typical academics, we'd have just written papers about our observations and that would have been it. But instead, we went out and did it," says Conway, noting that at the time -- circa 1977 -- "a lot of people didn't think the new methods sounded plausible.

"Fortunately," she adds, "we had some secret weapons for launching the new methods -- powerful new computers at PARC and access to the ArpaNet -- enabling us to reach out and share ideas with collaborators and early adopters in many of the country's leading research universities, and get them directly involved in the revolution."

Conway taught a course at MIT in 1978 on the new methods. After a single semester and within just weeks of completing their designs, students were able to have a fabricated chip ready to test. In 1979, the course was expanded to 12 universities with similar results, using a new type of automated Internet server to coordinate everything. This method of teaching was unheard of at the time and was itself a milestone in technology history.

VLSI Design

The book jacket for Conway and Mead's landmark book, Introduction to VLSI DesignWithin two years, more than 110 universities were teaching courses based on the Mead-Conway textbook. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began supporting university research in this exciting new area, and it funded the ongoing operation of an Internet-based rapid-prototyping chip service called MOSIS. In this way, university researchers and students all around the country could get their chips fabricated at various "silicon foundries," to use the phrase Carver Mead coined for such services.

"Instead of requiring lots of people and lots of time to turn a design around, suddenly we'd given chip designers an easier, more elegant way to do things," Conway said. Many researchers and entrepreneurs then spread the revolution Conway and Mead started, she says.

Examples include the MIPS chip development at Stanford, the RISC chips at the University of California, Berkeley, the specialized graphics processors Jim Clark later built a business around at Silicon Graphics Inc., and VLSI CAD companies such as Cadence Design Systems Inc., Mentor Graphics Corp. and many others.

"We were just two people who could see where things were heading" Conway says about herself and Mead, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. "Mead was way ahead of his time in predicting the scaling of VLSI technology," she said. "He foresaw how really far Moore's law still had to go, and this was a huge motivating factor in all our work."

"Without us, a VLSI design revolution would have unfolded, but it wouldn't have happened as quickly or spread out as widely" says Conway. "Instead, there was a sudden breakout by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the 1980s, and the silicon gold rush that started there has been going on ever since."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon