Structured Custom Design of Integrated Circuits

Carver Mead has made many of the Information Age’s most significant advances in microcircuitry, which are essential to the internet access and global cellular phone use that many people enjoy and take for granted every day.

Born in 1934 in Bakersfield, California, Mead attended a small local grade school in the Sierra Nevada mountains, along with twenty fellow students and only one or two teachers.  Yet, with the inspiration of a trigonometry textbook provided by one of those teachers and the practical help of his father, who brought electrical equipment home from work for his son to experiment on, Mead decided on a career in math or science early on. 

In 1952, Mead enrolled at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in Pasadena, where he earned a BS (1956), MS (1957), and PhD (1960) in Electrical Engineering. He began teaching at CalTech after earning his master’s and currently holds the position of Gordon and Betty Moore Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Mead’s career at CalTech has been a series of triumphs in microelectronics. His once revolutionary ideas have repeatedly become standards of the industry. For example, Mead created the High Electron Mobility Transistor (HEMT) system of circuitry that amplifies microwave communication signals.  HEMT is now the standard amplifying device in fiberoptic and satellite links.

Mead’s early work in solid state electronics led to his most recognized invention:  the development of structured custom design of microchips.  In 1969, Mead and a colleague proposed the creation of VLSI (Very Large Scale Integrated) circuits, which would allow for millions of transistors to work together on a single silicon chip, including custom features as small as 0.15 micron. 

The electronics industry was almost universally skeptical about analog VLSI.  Within ten years (1978), Mead had made VLSI circuits a success and had published the essential textbook on their design, “Introduction to VLSI Systems.”  Within another ten years, when Mead published his second major book on the subject (1989), “Analog VLSI and Neural Systems,” custom design of microchips using VLSI circuits had become, as it remains today, universal.  Because Mead uses VLSI as a way of teaching both microchip design and general principles of computing in his books and in the classroom, his work has inspired a whole generation of technology innovators. 

For some time, Mead has concentrated his research on neuromorphic electronic systems, that is, technology that imitates the human brain and nervous system.  He is not the first electrical engineer to work in this field, but over ten years ago, Mead had already succeeded in creating an analog silicon retina and inner ear.  He believes that by focusing on the nervous systems’ sensors first, he can best understand how its central processing unit works. 

Carver Mead continues that effort today, along with many other projects, including directing and consulting for a number of high-tech firms.  He has earned over forty patents and numerous awards in the U.S. and abroad. Mead won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 1999.