Lynn Conway's VLSI Archive (cont.):

Background and content for the Mead-Conway work


Compiled by Lynn Conway

Copyright 2008, Lynn Conway

[V 4-27-08]  


This page discusses the background and motivations for the Mead-Conway work, including the context from which it sprang and how how it all got started in a collaborative effort at Xerox PARC and Caltech.


The early MOS technologies - - - contrast with the predominant bipolar TTL technology of the day - - - the Intel 4004 and its impact on thinking in Silicon Valley - - -


In the early 70's, Carver Mead made important contributions to our understanding of the physical limits of MOS scaling (B. Hoeneisen and C. A. Mead, "Fundamental Limitations in Microelectronics-I. MOS Technology," Solid State Electronics 15:819-829, 1972.). Sensing the coming opportunity for exploiting increased circuit density, Mead began teaching a series of MOS-LSI integrated circuit design courses at Caltech, building upon the nMOS circuit design knowledge just then emerging at Intel Corporation.


In the mid-to-late '60's, Lynn Conway contributed to high-performance computer architecture, hierarchical multi-level simulation and the "design of the computer design process" at IBM Research and IBM-ACS, developing insights into key parts of the larger puzzle Mead and Conway would go on to solve.  In the early 70's Lynn undertook the design of a compound OCR/FAX system at Xerox PARC. Becoming frustrated by the difficulty of implementing her system architectural visions in off-the-shelf TTL, she became intrigued by the potential of the new MOS-LSI technology.


In 1975, DARPA commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation regarding the basic limitations of microelectronic fabrication, leading to publication of the Sutherland-Mead-Everhart 'ARPA Report' in '76. In parallel with that work, Bert Sutherland at Xerox-PARC and his brother Ivan Sutherland at Caltech explored how to join forces to undertake research on questions raised in that report.

- - - Ivan's Sutherland's letter to Bert Sutherland of January 76, in which he proposed - - -


In early '76 the Sutherland brothers established a formal collaboration between research teams at PARC (Lynn Conway and Douglas Fairbairn) and Caltech (Carver Mead, Jim Rowson, Dave Johannsen), to explore and develop design methods and tools that would enable complex digital system architectures to be more easily implemented in silicon than in the past.


Some of the issues explored by the XeroxPARC/Caltech teams were those discussed in the Sutherland-Mead-Everhart ARPA report. Others were outlined by Sutherland and Mead in a Scientific American article, "Microelectronics and Computer Science", published later on in 1977.


For a discussion of how this collaboration unfolded and how it led to the publication of the Mead-Conway text and beyond, see the page: "Xerox PARC/Caltech Collaboration on VLSI systems research"

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