March 24th 2009 is Ada Lovelace Day – an initiative which we talked about in a previous episode. At the time of writing around 1500 people have signed an online pledge to produce a Blog, Podcast, Video, etc... about a woman in technology whom they admire. This episode is about one such woman.
Much of the technology we take for granted today is only possible because of the ability to design and prototype computer chips quickly and cheaply. At the beginning of the 1970’s the process was far from easy. It took time; It was prone to errors; and custom chip design was not economical for many kinds of product.
Professor Lynn Conway’s best known contribution, 30 years ago, was to invent and successfully promote a radical new approach which made the chip design process straightforward and affordable. It is arguable that some of the best known businesses and many of the products we nowadays take for granted would not have been possible without Lynn’s historical contribution.
In this interview Lynn talks via a transatlantic Skype call about her vision and the things that thrill her about engineering. You can also read her VLSI Archive and about some of her other work and challenges here.
Professor Lynn Conway’s innovations were key to the emergence of Very Large Scale Integrated system technology and to my own career. In 1980, I designed custom integrated circuits in Hewlett-Packard’s Disc (spelled with a “c”) Memory Division, as HP realigned its design methodologies using the text, Introduction to VLSI Systems, that Lynn coauthored with Dr. Carver Mead. Their adaptation of hierarchical design decomposition from the software world made unprecedented levels of functional complexity manageable in silicon. HP soon became the primary fabrication provider for the MOSIS rapid prototyping service, which was proposed by Lynn, using her Multi-Project Chip scheme. These innovations revolutionized the teaching of microelectronics design, enabling hands-on implementation in small, rural universities as well as major institutions. I helped bring a VLSI curriculum to the University of Idaho in the early 80s and established a new program at Montana State University a few years later. The former became the NASA Space Engineering Research Center for Microelectronics, established by Dr. Gary Maki with funding from the Goddard Space Flight Center. I continued to use the Mead-Conway text in my graduate and undergraduate classes for over a decade. Back at HP in the late 1990s, I worked alongside some of my former students on the Intel Itanium-2 processor. The world’s most advanced computing machine of the new millennium was enabled by many of the design principles advanced by Professor Conway many years earlier.