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Robert Dennard, IBM Inventor Whose Chip Changed Computing, Dies at 91

Robert Dennard, IBM Inventor Whose Chip Changed Computing, Dies at 91


Robert H. Dennard, an engineer who invented the silicon reminiscence know-how that performs an indispensable function in each smartphone, laptop computer and pill laptop, died on April 23 in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. He was 91.

The explanation for dying, at a hospital, was a bacterial an infection, mentioned his daughter, Holly Dennard.

Mr. Dennard’s pioneering work started at IBM within the Nineteen Sixties, when the gear to carry and retailer laptop knowledge was costly, hulking — usually room-size machines — and sluggish. He was finding out the rising area of microelectronics, which used silicon-based transistors to retailer digital bits of data.

In 1966, Mr. Dennard invented a technique to retailer one digital bit on one transistor — a know-how referred to as dynamic random-access reminiscence, or DRAM, which holds the data as {an electrical} cost that slowly fades over time and have to be refreshed periodically.

His discovery opened the door to beforehand unimaginable enchancment in knowledge capability, with decrease prices and better speeds all utilizing tiny silicon chips.

DRAM has been the premise of regular progress within the many years since. High-speed, high-capacity reminiscence chips maintain and rapidly shuttle knowledge to a pc’s microprocessor, which converts it into textual content, sound and pictures. Streaming movies on YouTube, enjoying music on Spotify or Apple Music and utilizing A.I. chatbots like ChatGPT depend upon them.

“DRAM has made a lot of recent computing doable,” mentioned John Hennessy, chair of Alphabet, Google’s father or mother firm.

Mr. Dennard additionally devised an idea that has served as a street map for future advances in microelectronics. Debuted in an preliminary paper in 1972, and fleshed out in one other two years later, he described the physics that might enable transistors to shrink and turn out to be extra highly effective and more cost effective, even because the vitality each consumed would stay nearly fixed.

The precept, often known as Dennard scaling, was complementary to a prediction made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, who went on to co-found Intel. Mr. Moore claimed that the variety of transistors that might be crammed onto a silicon chip might be doubled about each two years — and that computing energy and speeds would speed up on that trajectory. His prediction turned often known as Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law involved the density of transistors on a chip, whereas Dennard scaling primarily involved energy consumption, and by 2005, it reached its limits: Transistors had turn out to be so tiny, they started to leak electrons, inflicting chips to warmth up and eat extra vitality.

But Mr. Dennard’s strategy to figuring out challenges within the know-how, researchers say, has had an enduring impression on chip growth.

“Everybody in semiconductors studied his rules to get the place we’re at this time,” mentioned Lisa Su, chief government of Advanced Micro Devices, a big chipmaker, and a former colleague of Mr. Dennard’s at IBM.

Robert Dennard was born on Sept. 5, 1932, in Terrell, Texas, the youngest of 4 youngsters. His father, Buford Dennard, was a dairy farmer, and his mom, Loma Dennard, was a homemaker who additionally labored in a faculty cafeteria.

The household moved east when Robert was a small baby, and he started his training in a one-room schoolhouse close to Carthage, Texas. The household later moved to Irving, then a small city, when his father acquired a job with a fertilizer firm there.

Growing up, Robert developed an appreciation for the humanities, studying the H.G. Wells tales and Ogden Nash poems that his oldest sister, Evangeline, had left behind when she departed Texas to be an Army nurse throughout World War II. In an oral historical past interview for the Computer History Museum in 2009, he recalled listening numerous occasions to an album of Sigmund Romberg operettas. “She left me behind some actually good issues to begin off some sort of mental profession,” he mentioned of his sister.

In highschool, he was a great scholar, particularly in math and English, and had deliberate to go to a close-by junior faculty. But his aptitude for music supplied a distinct path. He performed the E-flat bass in his highschool band, and when the director of the Southern Methodist University band visited, he supplied Robert a scholarship.

“That was my alternative,” Mr. Dennard recalled.

Though music was his entry level, he earned undergraduate and grasp’s levels in electrical engineering on the college. He later obtained a Ph.D. from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University.

In 1958, Mr. Dennard was employed by IBM, the place he spent his total profession till retiring in 2014.

He was married thrice. He and his second spouse, Mary Dolores (Macewitz) Dennard, divorced in 1984, and in 1995 he married Frances Jane Bridges.

In addition to his daughter and his spouse, Mr. Dennard is survived by one other daughter, Amy Dennard, and 4 grandchildren. His son, Robert H. Dennard Jr., died in 1998.

Over his profession, Mr. Dennard produced 75 patents and obtained a number of scientific awards, together with the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and the Kyoto Prize in superior know-how from the Inamori Foundation, in Japan, in 2019.

In the 2009 interview, when Mr. Dennard was requested what recommendation he would give a teen all for science and know-how, he pointed to his personal “very humble upbringing” and mentioned “anyone can take part on this.”

“There is alternative there,” he mentioned. “These issues don’t occur by themselves. It takes actual folks, making these breakthroughs.”

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