Harvey Nathanson – the father of MEMS – dies aged 83

Harvey Nathanson – the father of MEMS – dies aged 83

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By Peter Clarke

Nathanson grew up the son of a pharmacist in Pittsburgh and went on to be a pioeer of solid-state electronics working for Westinghouse research labs in the same city.

As a child in the 1950s Nathanson taught himself about analog electronics by building hi-fi mail-order kits. Such was his interest he declined the opportunity to take over his father’s pharmacy business in favour of attending Carnegie Technical institute which became Carnegie-Mellon University.

Nathanson earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie and joined Westinghouse Electric where in 1965 he is credited with conceiving the first MEMS device. It would be a microscopic mechanical tuner for microelectronic solid-state radios. It was developed with Robert Wickstrom and William Newell and patented as a Microelectric Frequency Selective Apparatus. A refined version of the device was subsequently patented as the Resonant Gate Transistor, often referred to as the first MEMS device to be made.

MEMS could be made using conventional semiconductor manufacturing processes but they were relatively slow to find practical applications and were still something of a curiosity in the 1980s when being offered by Motorola for some industrial sensing applications.

Next: Blossom and grow

The semiconductor industry’s focus was on transistor integration. MEMS started to gain traction with the introduction of the ADXL-50 accelerometer in 1993 by Analog Devices. From that application MEMS jumped across to the consumer electronics field and extremely high volumes in the mobile phone sector to situation today where billions of sensors are sold each year.

As MEMS blossomed Nathanson continued to work at Westinghouse and pioneered the fabrication where materials on silicon wafers are undercut through the use of masks and sacrificial layers. In 1973 he patented the use of microscopic moving mirrors to create a video display as taken forward by Texas Instruments in their digital light processing and used in digital projectors.

Nathanson has created a world-changing legacy from beginnings based on curiosity about how early hi-fis and radios worked.

Related links and articles:

Nathanson obituary

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