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February 2, 2011 10:31 AM

Tech pioneer Carver Mead at UW, on dawn of Intel and PC era

Posted by Brier Dudley

In a speech at the University of Washington last night, computer pioneer Carver Mead shared all sorts of anecdotes about early days in the microelectronics industry that led to the PC revolution and today's pocket computers.

Mead - who coined the term Moore's Law - told of having one of his regular dinners with his friend Gordon Moore in 1967 when Moore told him about plans to start Intel.

Mead talked about how he later observed the slow, manual lithography techniques Intel first used to create semiconductors in the 1960s. He then learned a better approach from aerospace companies that were using a computerized approach to produce circuit boards.

Later Mead started a foundry service for researchers to share the cost of manufacturing prototype semiconductors, a program that inspired the UW's new "OpSIS" silicon photonics foundry service. The service will be used by researchers and companies developing chips with lasers that transmit digital signals with light at phenomenal speeds.

Mead spoke at a kickoff event for the OpSIS foundry, which is led by Assistant Professor Michael Hochberg. Hochberg studied at Caltech, where Mead is Gordon and Betty Moore Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science.

Intel's contributing $250,000 to start OpSIS. Also supporting the effort are the Air Force and BAE Systems, which will produce chips for OpSIS at its semiconductor fabrication facility in Manassas, Va.

Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said during the event that OpSIS is "going to train a generation - or several generations - of designers and it's going to catalyze an entire industry to embrace photonics."

Hochberg said OpSIS will produce its first run of chips this summer and should make three or four runs a year going forward.

Researchers can pay for a slice of the production wafer, on which a number of different experimental chips are produced. Instead paying perhaps millions for a full batch of chips, they'll pay $20,000 to $30,000 to have their test chip produced alongside others.

"The idea is to make it accessible for the entire community to make these complex circuits," he said.

Here's a video of Mead's speech, provided by a UW spokeswoman. A professionally produced version will be broadcast later on the UW cable TV channel. In the meantime this one works pretty well as a podcast:

Video streaming by Ustream

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