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The Presence of Giants

2009 Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Tells a Story

American Football has the Super Bowl – but that just honors the best team for a single year. Baseball – the “world” series – but that only covers one country. The Academy Awards – outstanding achievements in motion pictures worldwide, still just for a single year. The Olympics honor the best of the best in a number of activities once every four years. The America’s Cup – up for grabs about every three* (*subject to legal review.) We, however, were gathered for something much bigger than all those put together, and it was all in celebration of achievement in engineering.

The room wasn’t all that large, given the grandeur of the assembly.  Three dozen or so circular dinner tables radiated out from the stage in the banquet hall at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.  The occasion was auspicious enough – the 50th anniversary of the IC (and the 25th anniversary of the FPGA) and the 2009 induction ceremony for the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  In addition to the fifteen honorees (whose accomplishments we will discuss in a moment), some thirty former inductees were gathered to celebrate.

Here, in this one room, were gathered people who forever changed the course of human history. For, without the key contributions of the engineers attending this event – the technological society we live in today would simply not exist.  Sitting a few tables away from us, Gordon Moore, the technology prophet who gave us “Moore’s Law,” awaited his induction.  Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, was nearby, slated to receive a lifetime achievement award.  A total of fifteen inductees, including Ross Freeman – inventor of the FPGA, would be honored for their achievements in the field of semiconductors.

For those of us with an interest in FPGA technology, the inclusion of Ross Freeman in this group is significant.  Given the vast array of semiconductor devices that have been designed, the only architecture being recognized was the FPGA (microprocessors had been recognized in a prior year).

But the story we were celebrating went back much farther than FPGAs, or even well-known engineering icons like Gordon Moore and Andy Grove.  Our journey began at the primordial soup of modern semiconductors, the invention of the very processes and techniques of chip fabrication.  We honored Jean Hoerni who conceived the planar process for semiconductor fabrication, Gordon Teal, who gave us the first functioning silicon transistor in 1954, Alfred Cho, who invented molecular beam epitaxy, and John Macdougall and Ken Manchester, who invented ion implantation.  

On top of those basic processes, we honored John Atalla and Dawon Kahng, who invented the MOS transistor, and Frank Wanlass, creator of CMOS.  On the analog side, there was Robert Widlar, pioneer in linear integrated circuits and co-founder of Linear Technology corporation.  In storage, we heard from Dov Frohman-Bentchkowsky, creator of EPROM – from which modern non-volatile memories are descended; and in I/O, George Heilmeier, who invented the LCD display and Larry Hornbeck, who created the digital micromirror device used in digital projectors.

The Hall of Fame also recognized the contributions of visionaries like Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, of course, as well as Carver Mead – the father of VLSI – who realized that just putting millions of transistors onto a chip wouldn’t do us much good unless we had some pretty sophisticated methods for designing something useful with them.  

20090505_giants_fig1.jpg
Photo courtesy of Xilinx, Inc.

Most of the inductees that are living gave brief acceptance speeches.  Carver Mead asked us to support the education of future generations of engineers, underscoring the criticality of engineering education in the continuation of technological progress.  Andy Grove asked us to consider reforming the patent system in light of the current trends of aggregating, selling, and trading patent portfolios – pointing out the similarities to financial derivatives like mortgage-backed securities and the likelihood of similarly bad social consequences.  

For our table, however, the focus was on Ross Freeman and the FPGA.  Ross passed away in 1989, just five years after inventing the FPGA and co-founding Xilinx.  Ross’s family and colleagues were with us, however, including Jim Barnett – co-founder of Xilinx, and Bill Carter, original Xilinx CTO and fellow. Ross’s award was accepted by his brother, and a number of family members including Ross’s mother, were there to honor his achievement.

Many of those who had been inducted before were also there, supporting these important new additions to the roster that includes Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell.  Past inductees in attendance included Paul Baran (digital packet switching,) Bob Bower (self-aligned gate MOSFET), Douglas Engelbart (computer mouse), Federico Faggin and Tedd Hoff (microprocessor), Don Keck and Peter Schultz (optical fiber), George Smith (Charge-Coupled Device), Louis Stevens (magnetic disk drive), Harold Rosen (geosynchronous satellites), Jim West (electret microphone), and Steve Wozniak (the personal computer).  

20090505_giants_fig3.jpg
Photo courtesy of Xilinx, Inc.

Sitting in a room amongst these giants, one couldn’t help but consider the cumulative difference they’ve made in our world and the near-impossibility of envisioning how different our civilization would be today without the brilliant work of these roughly thirty individuals.  As engineers, each of us has the potential to one day join the ranks of these men whose creative genius, problem-solving skills, persistence, courage, and sometimes blind luck produced the perfect storm of our profession’s technological achievement.  More importantly, we all are almost certainly part of the vast teams of supporting talent whose quieter contributions enable these sparks of invention to become important parts of the daily lives of every man, woman, and child in the civilized world.  

History has yet to place FPGAs on the same plane as the electric light, the telephone, and the steam engine, but with the induction of Ross Freeman into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, some of today’s brightest visionaries apparently think it is possible.  Today, the importance of single inventions is giving way to the predominance of complex combinations of existing technologies to produce new and exciting capabilities.  Likewise, the importance of single devices or products is declining in favor of complex ecosystems of interconnected devices and services.  In those ecosystems, FPGAs already play a major role as the glue that bridges protocols and standards from different domains and as the flexible work-horses that enable progress to happen now, long before the standards have stabilized and the production parts begin to commoditize last year’s inventions as our profession focuses on those to come in the next year.

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