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How a Small Class at Caltech Helped Launch a Computer Revolution

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Carver Mead (center) receiving the Kyoto Prize, alongside Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum (right) and Caltech Engineering and Applied Science Division Chair Harry A. Atwater.

Credit: Vicki Chiu

One of the foundational early advances in computer science that makes our increasingly digital world possible began with a small course taught by Carver Mead at Caltech in the early 1970s.

Mead (BS '56, MS '57, PhD '60), the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus, received the 2022 Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology in honor of his "leading contributions to the establishment of the guiding principles for VLSI systems design." VLSI, which stands for "very large-scale integration," is the process of combining millions of transistors onto a single chip that forms an integrated circuit and it is the cornerstone of the computers the world relies on today. Mead, a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus, also received the National Medal of Technology in 2002 for his efforts (it is now known as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation).

Mead and computer engineer Lynn Conway wrote the book on the subject, Introduction to VLSI Systems, which was first published in 1978 and became the world standard textbook for chip design. However, the book and the VLSI revolution grew out of an electrical engineering course with an unassuming name, EE 281—Semiconductor Devices, which Mead began teaching to Caltech undergraduate and graduate students in 1971.

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