Over a 50-year career, Carver A. Mead has been the most influential thinker and pioneer in silicon technology. His contributions to microelectronics and integrated circuits have been truly foundational and far-reaching.
In the early 1970s, Mead saw that integrated circuits could only be designed through a deep understanding of device physics. To open the design process to a broader community, he invented structured chip design methodologies that reduced the complex constraints of device physics into simply-applied design rules. This made possible the design of increasingly elaborate chips. Mead also pioneered silicon compilers, tools that use his structured design methodologies to translate chip specifications into integrated circuits. Taken together, these techniques have enabled the development of the billion-transistor processors that drive the electronic devices – for example, in laptops, tablets, smartphones, DVD players, and hybrid cars – ubiquitous in our daily lives.
His deep knowledge of and insight into device physics led to another major innovation: the first metal semiconductor field-effect transistor using Galium Arsenide. By virtue of their improved performance and power-handling capability, these “MESFET” devices have come to be the standard high-frequency amplifier used in cell phones, radar, and satellite microwave communications.
Mead and Lynn Conway’s seminal textbook, Introduction to VLSI Systems, not only taught generations of engineering students chip design methodologies, but also advanced the frontiers of silicon technology by introducing the concept of scalable design rules, which facilitate the portability of chip designs. Mead and Conway also inaugurated the “MOSIS” multi-chip service, allowing students to validate their chip designs. Moreover, this multi-chip service demonstrated the feasibility of the fabless semiconductor industry, which allows chip companies to focus on research and development without the expense of building and maintaining factories. The explosive growth of the ICT industry, fueled by startup innovation, would not have been possible without this manufacturing model.
Well known in the semiconductor industry is Gordon Moore’s eponymous law, which predicts that transistor densities double every eighteen months. Carver A. Mead not only coined the name “Moore’s Law”, but also developed, through his study of fundamental physical laws, the scientific underpinning of this empirical observation, and used that research to predict limits on transistor scaling. At the pinnacle of his VLSI fame, Mead turned towards bio-inspired chip design. His vision was to understand biological neural systems by recreating them in silicon, which launched the field of analog neuromorphic circuit design. Based on this vision, Mead built the first silicon retina and silicon cochlea, which led to some of his entrepreneurial successes, including Synaptics, whose touchpads appear in most of today’s laptops.
The richness and diversity of Mead’s work is difficult to overstate. His work from structured silicon designs to device physics to neural engineering has propelled the entire semiconductor industry and enabled the vast array of computing devices that permeate our everyday lives.