Shrinking the Model World Down to Size: Dr. Carver Mead

Few people have done more to define the world we live in than Dr. Carver A. Mead of the California Institute of Technology, the father of modern microelectronics. Take a look around you: anything you see that incorporates a microchip would be unthinkable without Dr. Mead’s ideas.

After receiving his B.S. in 1956, his M.S. in 1957, and his Ph.D. in 1960 in Electrical Engineering, all at Caltech, he taught there for more than 40 years and became world famous as an innovative engineer, scientist and theorist.

Dr. Mead was the first to predict the possibility of storing millions of transistors on a single chip, and then investigated techniques for very-large-scale integration (VLSI), designing and creating high-complexity microchips. He taught the world’s first VLSI design course at Caltech in 1970, and then wrote the classic textbook on integrated circuit design, Introduction to VLSI Systems, coauthored with Lynn Conway.

In 1972, Dr. Mead and graduate student, Bruce Hoeneisen, predicted that transistors could be made as small as 0.15 microns—smaller than the smallest bacteria. Their prediction was greeted with skepticism. In 2000, that prediction came true, and the transistor was very similar to the one Mead had predicted, 18 years earlier.

But Dr. Mead has hardly limited himself to the micro world. His work has encompassed the real world, the world of the senses, and beyond. In the 1980s, for example, he experimented with the electronic modeling of human neurology and biology, creating “neuromorphic” circuits that began to mimic the architecture of the nervous system.

Mead then explored the potential for modeling more complex biological systems of computation for both animal and human brains. He explored the senses of touch, sight, and hearing, as well as the operation of the brain itself. Mead’s work has led to the development of computer processors whose electronic components are connected in ways that resemble biological synapses. He has even thought of re-conceptualizing modern physics itself. And lest you think that Mead’s amazing mind is all theory, he has been involved in the founding of at least 20 companies, including Sonic.

Our other two founders, Dr. Douglas Chabries and Dr. Thomas Stockham, had developed a low-power digital hearing device prototype in the mid-1990s, but it had to be hauled around in a wagon. Fortunately, Dr. Stockman’s son knew of Dr. Mead’s VLSI work. Mead, who had a long-standing interest in the sense of hearing, enthusiastically joined the project.

Dr. Mead put the prototype on one tiny chip, small enough to fit comfortably inside the human ear, and run for days on a tiny battery. Despite its size, the chip was probably the most powerful one ever used in a hearing device. The Sonic Natura came on the market in 1998. Dr. Mead had taken a great idea and made it practically usable by millions of hearing loss patients everywhere.

The major scientific and engineering awards Dr. Mead has won are too numerous to mention here, but one, The National Medal of Technology and Innovation (NMTI), is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement. In 2002, President Bush cited Dr. Mead for his “pioneering contributions to microelectronics that include spearheading the development of tools and techniques for modern integrated-circuit design.”

To understand his true impact on the world we live in, consider this: no matter what device you’re reading this on, it would not exist without the vision and brilliance of one of our founders, Dr. Carver Mead.

Find out more about the contributions of our other founders, Dr. Douglas Chabries and Dr. Thomas Stockholm, to our company and to the human hearing experience.

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