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In the 1970s and early ’80s, microprocessors were making their way into home appliances and computing and computers were on the cusp of being mainstream. While much of the world simply said, “Wow!,” engineers David A. Patterson, John L. Hennessy, Stephen B. Furber, and Sophie M. Wilson asked, “What if…?”
The 2022 Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering celebrated the accomplishments of these four engineers for their “contributions to the invention, development, and implementation of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) chips.” Today, about 99% of all new computer chips use the RISC architecture.
“It is an honor for the NAE to recognize these outstanding individuals, whose contributions and accomplishments in engineering have made a lasting, positive impact on our world,” said NAE President John L. Anderson. “Their pioneering achievements reflect the epitome of engineering and have earned them much-deserved recognition as the 2022 Draper Prize recipients. Like Doc Draper, for whom this award is named, they pushed the boundaries of our technological future.”
Presenting the Draper Prize with Anderson was Tara Clark, acting president and CEO, and vice president of Operations and Commercial Programs, at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory.
“On behalf of the Laboratory, I warmly congratulate the recipients for their contributions to the invention, development, and implementation of RISC chips,” Clark said. “The advancements to all humanity enabled by their contributions are impossible to quantify.”
What If? The Answer: RISC Chips
Speaking on behalf of the honorees, Patterson presented highlights of their decades-long research and development process.
“We were convinced that microprocessors would become the foundation of all computing,” said Patterson. “The question was, what was the best vocabulary or instruction set for these rapidly improving microprocessors?”
That question led to the development of the reduced instruction set computer, a microprocessor designed to simplify the individual instructions to the computer. RISC chips perform at faster speeds, with fewer processing cycles, lower energy requirements, and reduced heat output.
Both Patterson, from Stanford University, and Hennessy, from the University of California, Berkeley, championed RISC as more efficient than competing computer vocabularies, such as complex instruction set computers (CISC). In addition, Patterson explained, “the simplicity of RISC meant it was more efficient in use of silicon and power.”
“This [RISC] efficiency advantage would prove to be an unbeatable edge as computers moved off desktops and into people’s hands and from devices plugged into the wall to battery powered,” Patterson noted.
Inspired by the work of Hennessy and Patterson, Furber and Wilson built a new microprocessor for the Acorn personal computer and created an instruction set called the Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM. When the ARM1 debuted in 1985 as the first commercial RISC processor, it was faster than any microprocessor on the market. Apple and Nokia took an interest and incorporated the ARM in their early cellphones as that market took off.
“Computer architecture is a team sport,” Patterson said. “The Draper Prize is recognition for our former students and wonderful colleagues and collaborators at Acorn, ARM, Berkeley, and Stanford.”
“We also thank our families and especially our spouses for 50 years of support over our long careers. We certainly couldn’t have helped make these contributions without them standing by our sides,” Patterson concluded.
The Draper Prize
The Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering is one of the world’s preeminent awards for achievement in any engineering discipline. It honors an engineer or engineers whose accomplishments have significantly impacted society by improving the quality of life, providing the ability to live freely and comfortably, and/or permitting access to information. Awarded biennially, the prize confers a $500,000 cash award. NAE members and nonmembers worldwide are eligible. Among this year’s recipients, Hennessy and Patterson are NAE members.
Special thanks go to Doc Draper for his legacy and to the Draper Corporation for endowing this prize.
Click on the photos below to read the full photo caption. Photos courtesy of rlstevensphotography for the National Academy of Engineering.