62) People’s Republic of Massachusetts – Home of Dunkin’ Donuts and a Smidgen of Technology

Welcome new reader!

In the last post I bragged a little about my new role at Analog Devices in Massachusetts on the team that designed the world’s first accelerometer on a chip (the ADXL50) in the early nineties.

In  this post, if you’re interested, I’ll develop this story further including our move from Minnesota to Massachusetts, our first experiences at Harvard Square, and a couple of the characters in the design group who could be characterized as brilliantly eccentric.

Mr. Morris, our Cat

Within a few weeks, Nadine, Jenner, Stevie and Mr. Morris our orange cat arrived in Massachusetts. Nadine had driven the four of them across the country from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Sipping Coffee with the Old Money Crowd at Au Bon Pain at Harvard Square

We spent the winter in our rented Cambridge, Massachusetts triple-decker flat using the week-ends to take the kids to the tot-lot one block away, jump on the bus to Boston or spend some time conspicuously sipping coffee at Au Beau Pain in Harvard Square.

Based on our experiences living in San Francisco, we became quite good at discovering the most interesting neighborhoods and amenities Massachusetts had to offer and meticulously exploiting them. Some of the best things in life are free, as they say.

Principle Circuit Designer of The ADXL50

My work on the ADXL50 – the Gee-Wiz, 3-D computer chip – was divided between drawing test structures for the process (bipolar/CMOS or BiCMOS) engineering group and prototype circuits for the circuit design engineer. The Principal Circuit Designer was a man named Sam Cernan (name changed) who was known for being brilliant but stubborn about certain things. For example, Sam refused to use a particular software design application that was, in his opinion, “untested”. So instead of providing me with an electronically generated (and verified, by the way) representation of the circuit, I received the his final circuit rendering on a patchwork of pieces of typing paper, all taped together. “Let ’er rip,” he said. In his mind, he had provided me with appropriate engineering input with which a competent layout designer would translate to “mask work”, or a series of drawings containing shapes of transistors and wires. That was Sam.

Mostly Functional Working Silicon – On First Test

I was able to complete layout a few months later, and when it came time to place electrodes on the completed silicon test die to ascertain basic functionality, it worked! First time. (Although from the start to finish, all of this took nearly five years!)

Why Any of This Is Could be Considered Remarkable

By now I have established in the reader’s mind, hopefully, I wasn’t a natural talent in engineering. I had failed Algebra badly and slid through my undergraduate in business with no further – other than statistics – math that was required. I didn’t distinguish myself in the business school and was not a top student in the IC Layout program at Master’s Design and Technical Center in silicon valley. And worse, I had bombed my first layout job at Micro Linear in Milpitas, California and been let go at VTC, due to cutbacks. The truth was, I was unqualified to participate on a team that would create the “worlds first accelerometer on a chip”.

Lucky Enough to Possess This Belief

But here is what I did have. I had the ability to learn and the knack for getting people to trust and believe in me.

This is because I believe in myself!

The story of the creation of the ADXL50, the world’s first accelerometer on a chip, could fill a book or two, (Just as Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder did in the 1981). But for our purpose here, a few paragraphs will probably due nicely.

Readers not interested in the technical merits of semiconductor development using micro-electrical mechanical systems (MEMS) using my oversimplified explanations, crude analogies and passionate pleas for understanding, may pass – just as my family did, at the time.

If you drive an automobile, then probably some version of an accelerometer is buried in your steering wheel.

Next: What is an accelerometer?

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