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Modern Computer Memory Inventor Receives Lifetime Award

(April 21, 2005)

"Take two aspirin and call me in the morning," was the response Dr. Robert Dennard received when he first proposed a new way of arranging transistors and capacitors onto a single silicon chip. This week, Dennard will receive the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for this invention, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), a breakthrough that transformed the microelectronics industry in the early 1970s and remains the most popular form of computer memory today.

   "Dr. Dennard's technical innovations have led the way from bulky room-sized computers to the 'portable age' of cellular phones and laptop computers we have today," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the annual award.

   Dennard will receive his award this Friday, April 22, during the 11th annual Lemelson-MIT Awards Ceremony, being held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The award honors a remarkable individual for his or her life-long commitment to improving society through invention. 

   A Little Chip Goes a Long Way 

   "It is truly unusual in a field moving as rapidly as semiconductor technology to have an invention endure over three decades, but there is still no technology on the horizon to replace the single-transistor DRAM cell," Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman emeritus at Intel, wrote in his recommendation letter for Dennard.

   Before Dennard created the DRAM cell at IBM in 1967, technology companies had been using magnetic memory and were running into problems extending its use. Magnetic memory consumed a lot of power and was expensive.

   DRAM was a novel alternative because it was much smaller, required less power and was significantly less costly.

   The first commercial DRAM chips were introduced in the 1970s. They contained a few thousand memory cells, or bits, but the density improved rapidly. Today's chips can hold up to a billion bits of information and provide the RAM function in all computers from laptops to supercomputers. DRAM, integrated with a special purpose processor to form a system-on-a-chip (SOC), is used in pervasive applications from communications network switches to digital cameras.

   "I'm often asked if I could foresee how important (DRAM) would become," said Dennard. "I knew it was going to be a big thing, but I didn't know it would grow to have the wide impact that it has today." 

   Bigger Isn't Always Better 

   In the early 1970s, Dennard and his team at IBM had another significant breakthrough in the field of microelectronics. At the time, technology companies were struggling with whether bipolar-transistor-based integrated circuits were the ideal building blocks of high performance electronics. Although bipolar-transistors were intrinsically faster, Dennard thought the metal-oxide field effect transistor (MOSFET) offered a better alternative because of its amenability to large-scale integration with high density and good yield.

   He and his team developed a scaling theory, demonstrating that if all dimensions of a MOSFET device were reduced simultaneously, along with proportional changes in operating voltage and the silicon doping concentration, they could continue to make smaller and smaller devices that performed better, required less power, were denser and less expensive.

   "Dennard's development of scaling theory has been a driving force in microelectronics," wrote IBM Senior Vice President of Technology and Manufacturing, Nicholas Donofrio, in his recommendation letter.

   Dennard's paper devoted to this theory, "Design of Ion-Implanted MOSFETs with Very Small Physical Dimensions," published in 1974, is universally referenced as a guide to designing devices down to submicron dimensions. Additionally, it was recognized as a "Classic Paper" and reprinted in Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1999.

   Throughout his career, Dennard's work has resulted in 35 patents, nearly 90 published technical papers and numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.

   According to Dimitri A. Antoniadis, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most relevant inventions underlying modern computing are the integrated circuit, the MOSFET, the one-transistor DRAM cell and the magnetic disk. "I believe that this puts into perspective the great significance of Dennard's contributions to his industry and more importantly to society at large," he said. 

   Also Being Honored... 

   In addition to honoring Dennard's achievements, the Lemelson-MIT Program is awarding Elwood "Woody" Norris the program's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize at this week's ceremony. One of Norris' inventions, HyperSonic Sound(R), has the potential to transform the communications process of the future by enabling sound to be targeted to an individual listener. 


   The $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the nation's most talented inventors and innovators. It promotes living role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their examples.

   Other distinguished inventors who have previously received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award include Ruth Rogan Benerito, inventor of easy-care cotton; Raymond Damadian, inventor of the first Magnetic Resonance (MR) Scanning Machine; Al Gross, inventor of the walkie-talkie and pager; and Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar(R), a material used in products ranging from bullet-proof vests to airplanes. 


   The Lemelson-MIT Program provides the resources and inspiration to make invention and innovation more accessible to today's youth. It accomplishes this mission through outreach activities and annual awards, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest single award in the United States for invention.

   Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy that uses its resources to inspire, encourage and recognize inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, with a growing emphasis on those who harness invention for sustainable development where the needs are greatest. More information is online at

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Related Keywords:Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Robert Dennard


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