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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dennard Receives 2009 Draper Prize

Robert H. Dennard was awarded the 2009 Charles Stark Draper Prize "for his invention and contributions to the development of Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM),” on February 17, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

DRAM is used universally in computers and other data processing and communication systems. It is a form of computer memory that puts bits of data into capacitors – energy-storage devices within a miniaturized electronic circuit – and periodically recharges the capacitors so that the information in them is not lost. His one-transistor design was a vast improvement over the six-transistor cell in use at that time. Dennard’s ability to use only a single metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) transistor – a device that conducts electricity, amplifying the charge as the electricity is passed along – allowed his memory cell to be much smaller and simpler in design than its predecessor.

In addition, Dennard and associates developed the set of consistent scaling principles for miniaturizing MOS transistors and the integrated circuits using them, which are the basis for today’s electronic microprocessor and DRAM chips. In the early 1970s the industry was concerned with how far MOS transistors could be miniaturized without affecting their switching ability. Dennard’s IBM group introduced a theory – called constant-field scaling – which addressed these issues. This scaling allowed for computers to run faster on significantly less energy and thus be less costly to operate and is a major driver of the industry. His 1974 paper on MOS transistor scaling is universally referenced and has been reprinted as a “Classic Paper” in the Proceedings of the IEEE. 

The availability of cheap, high-density memory that has come about due to the invention of the DRAM cell has enabled tremendous growth in computing over the past 40 years. The DRAM market is estimated to have totaled $420 billion in sales through 2008.

After earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 1958, Dennard spent his entire professional career in various positions at IBM, including the prestigious title of IBM Fellow beginning in 1979. He was elected to the NAE in 1984.

The Charles Stark Draper Prize is a $500,000 annual award that honors engineers whose accomplishments have significantly benefited society. It is engineering’s highest honor and considered the Nobel Prize of engineering.

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