IEEE Medal of Honor Winner

When James D. Meindl went off to college in 1951, he planned to get a degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, that would enable him to design heavy electrical equipment for Westinghouse Electric Corp., where his father worked. As fate would have it, he was prevented from doing so, because the two men who taught the power engineering program left the department. So began the twisting road that led Meindl, the recipient of the 2006 IEEE Medal of Honor, to become an educator. And what a road it has been, Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry explains in "Wizard of Watts".

Meindl, an IEEE Life Fellow, got his bachelor's degree from Carnegie in 1955 and, on the advice of a mentor, decided to pursue postgraduate work in microelectronics, the opposite direction from which he had set out. His first project involved explaining the loss of radio-frequency signals transmitted through coaxial cables operated by the military. He soon became an expert in Maxwell's equations and solved the cable problem within 24 months. This newfound expertise thrust him into the emerging field of semiconductor engineering.

With a Ph.D. from the future Carnegie Mellon University, Meindl landed a job at Westinghouse, just not the one he had planned originally. Instead, he was hired to operate the silicon-controlled rectifiers that manage the control rods of a nuclear reactor. However, after a year of burning out transistors, the U.S. Army requested he repay its contributions to his education as a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps with a stint in active service.

He reported to the Army Signal Research and Development Laboratories, in Fort Monmouth, N.J., where he was assigned to work in the revolutionary world of integrated circuits (ICs). There, he met Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and, on travel, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor Corp., in Palo Alto, Calif. These gentlemen briefed Meindl on how he might go about solving his charge of developing an IC that could work at a power level low enough to be used inside a helmet as part of a radio receiver. He stayed at Fort Monmouth for eight years, two as an Army officer and six more as a civilian. (This period resulted in a haircut that has stayed with him throughout his entire adult life.)

In 1967, John Linvill, then chair of the electrical engineering department at Stanford, made Meindl an offer he couldn't refuse—working on an electronic system that would enable blind people to read. It used a camera to take a picture of the letters on a page and then translated that picture to a tiny pad of vibrating pins. Linvill needed someone who could design custom-made, low-power chips in order to make the device portable. Meindl went out to California and helped to create the chips in the Optacon, the first optical-to-tactile converter. "That was the most thrilling moment in engineering work that I have ever had," Meindl told Perry.

As a teacher at Stanford, Meindl began to develop a reputation as an indefatigable champion of his students' projects, which concentrated mostly on developing new low-power sensors and circuits—and seeded Silicon Valley with some of its most promising young stars.

After two decades as a professor at Stanford, Meindl accepted the post of provost of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y. Life as a provost, however, was not as rosy as he had anticipated. The Baby Boom had ended by the mid-80s, and enrollment in American universities dropped precipitously. Cutting budgets and raising tuitions simply was not the cup of tea for a man who enjoyed inventing and educating. So in 1993, he joined the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. As the Joseph M. Pettit Professor of Microelectronics, he pursues one of his passionate interests: optimizing the arrangement of interconnect wires that string blocks of logic circuitry on microprocessors.

Meindl is the director of the Interconnect Focus Center, in Atlanta—an R&D effort he organized eight years ago with the help of 13 U.S. universities—which investigates the impediments of interconnects to microprocessor performance. His team has developed a mathematical method to predict the distribution of interconnect lengths within a chip. It enables designers to select the optimal widths for wires to produce maximum performance at the lowest cost possible.

Between running from classroom to boardroom to research lab, Meindl serves as Georgia Tech's site director for the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network—on the latest of his professional passions, next-generation microelectronics. At 73, he is running as hard as ever. Still, he told Perry, it is fundamentally in the service of his students, who have come to populate the leadership of the microelectronics industry.

We congratulate Prof. Meindl on a career in service to his country, his profession, and his many well-mentored students on earning an award, the 2006 IEEE Medal of Honor, so richly deserved.

It reads simply: "For pioneering contributions to microelectronics, including low power, biomedical, physical limits and on-chip interconnect networks."

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.