Looking Back on the Birth of the Information Age

Carver Mead, one of the fathers of modern computing, combines memoir and instruction in new video series

No one knows the intersection of history and digital technology better than Caltech's Carver Mead. The Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus, helped to author the digital age as we know it—so it is fitting that he is now using a product of that digital age to preserve a piece of his legacy for posterity.

The Caltech Archives has begun the creation of a series of videos, all available for free on YouTube, that aim to provide a better understanding of the birth and evolution of modern computing, as told by one of its key participants and witnesses.

"My feeling is that these days, if it's not on the web, it doesn't exist," Mead says of the decision to launch the new video channel.

Mead (BS '56, MS '57, PhD '60), who has taught at Caltech for roughly six decades, is one of the fathers of very-large-scale integration (VLSI)—the process of combining millions to billions of transistors into a complex digital system on a single silicon chip. He recalls that, "In the early days, nobody believed that transistors could be made that small and still work. We worked out the scaling laws and convinced the industry that it was possible."

Mead taught the first course on VLSI design in 1971 in Caltech's electrical engineering department. Together with Lynn Conway, he also wrote what is still the landmark book on the topic: Introduction to VLSI Systems, published in 1979. 

Mead has taught at Caltech since 1958, first as an instructor, while he was still in graduate school, and then as an assistant professor beginning in 1959 and, starting in 1980, as the Gordon and Betty Moore professor. Mead coined the term "Moore's Law"—the 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore (PhD '54) that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every two years—and was the first to provide evidence that it did not violate the laws of physics.

In 1999, Mead transitioned into a non-instructional emeritus position, though he still returns to campus every month for a week or two. Lately, his sojourns back to campus have included sorting through his very full laboratory for items that the Caltech Archives would like to preserve: papers, notes, chip designs, and media records of his work from the birth of modern computing.

In early 2017, Mariella Soprano of the Caltech Archives approached Mead about contributing significant artifacts from his time at Caltech to the Archives as a tangible record of his contributions. As Mead sorted through his collection for the most significant items, Soprano suggested that they capture on video his explanations of the background of each object.

The result was several marathon sessions occupying more than 20 hours of video. Excerpts from these, together with edited versions of historic Mead videos, are gathered in a YouTube channel that was launched on May 29. More videos will be added as they become available.

The first video, "My First Chip," premiered in fall 2017. It tells the story of how Mead moved from transistor physics to microchip design. Gina Chen from Caltech's Academic Media Technologies was behind the camera for the filming of the video, and described the process as, "like taking a master class."

"Carver is a great storyteller who intertwines his knowledge with intriguing historical contexts. He situates you right at the heat of the debates of his predictions in the late 60's and early 70's, and you feel you were right there with him," Chen says.

The success of "My First Chip" inspired Mead and Chen to create a series of 10-minute informational videos—the Insight Series—that detail the fundamentals of computing that were hammered out during Mead's career. So far, the Insight Series includes a description of how logic is built in a physical form; the MOS (metal-oxide-semiconductor) transistor; the evolution of computers; and the physics behind Moore's Law. These videos focus on making the complex subject of computer architecture and theory accessible to all viewers.

"For me, it was extraordinary," says Soprano, who sat in the audience as Mead lectured. "The fact that we get to participate in this with a giant of the field is something I'll never forget."

Chen has taken on the hard work of winnowing down the raw footage into short videos with an engaging structure and flow.

"It is always very fun and adventurous working with Carver, who encourages experimentation and inspires creativity," Chen says. "As an artist myself, I feel that Carver is like an artist in the scientific world; his undertaking of making his first chip and his other inventions is similar to the artist's creative process of making art."

Written by Robert Perkins