Pioneering Stanford computer researcher and educator Edward McCluskey dies

The professor emeritus who paved the way for everything from complex chips to crash-proof computers, and who trained 75 PhDs, also loved quirky hats and nature.

Edward McCluskey

A pioneer in computer engineering, Edward McCluskey was also a notable educator of many PhDs who went on to become industry leaders. (Image credit: Joel Simon)

Edward J. McCluskey, a professor emeritus at Stanford whose research helped pave the way for electronics and computing, died on Feb. 13. He was 86.

Born on the eve of the Great Depression, McCluskey graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1953, earning honors in mathematics and physics, then went on to study electrical engineering at MIT, where he earned his doctorate in 1956.

But the experience that set him on the path toward professional greatness occurred during the period from 1955 through 1959, when he worked first as an MIT intern and later as a staff researcher at Bell Telephone Laboratories during its heyday.

In a 2008 lecture, when he won an award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), McCluskey fondly recalled that storied period when Bell researchers were inventing many of the building blocks of electronics and computing.

It was in this intellectual crucible that McCluskey helped devise a way to efficiently and unerringly design logic chips, an achievement that would form the basis of his dissertation. More important, the Quine-McCluskey algorithm, as it is called, paved the way for the automated design of complex chips and ultimately enabled the success of the semiconductor industry.

“He was the father of modern digital design,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.

Aart de Geus, chairman of Synopsys, a company whose design automation software traces its lineage to McCluskey’s work, likened him “to a great oak tree that we suddenly see fall.”

Entry into academia

McCluskey left Bell Labs in 1959 to become an associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton and established the Princeton University Computer Center. In 1966, he joined the faculty at Stanford Engineering, where his later career achievements would overshadow even his promising start.

Three years after joining Stanford as a professor of electrical engineering, he founded the Stanford Digital Systems Laboratory, which would become one of the fountainheads of the high-tech industry. In 1970 McCluskey helped establish the Stanford Computer Engineering Program and in that same year became the first president of the IEEE Computer Society.

Recalling these times in his 2008 lecture, McCluskey observed that nowadays collaborations between electrical engineers and computer scientists are common, even obvious, but in those days it was the exception rather the rule.

Among other notable research efforts, McCluskey founded the Center for Reliable Computing (CRC) at Stanford University, which made major contributions to the testing of computer chips and helped design fault-tolerant systems to avoid so-called computer “crashes” that cost money and lives – spurring research that will only become more essential as self-driving cars and other autonomous technologies become a reality.

In recognition of his lifetime achievements, McCluskey was awarded the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in 2012, one of the top honors bestowed in computing.

“Professor McCluskey had a profound impact on the field of electronics,” said Shekhar Y. Borkar, an Intel Fellow and director of Extreme-Scale Technologies at Intel Corporation.

Over the years McCluskey helped recruit many notable researchers to Stanford, including John Hennessy, who went on to become a computer industry innovator and president of the university.

“Ed McCluskey was a pioneer in the computer engineering community, and I am deeply saddened to learn of his death,” Hennessy said. “Ed was the founding director of the Digital Systems Laboratory at Stanford [renamed the Computer Systems Laboratory]. He recruited me to Stanford to join the laboratory in 1977. In addition to shaping the development of digital systems, he was a great educator, producing an incredible group of PhD graduates, many of whom have gone on to become industry leaders. We were very fortunate to have him as our colleague. He will be deeply missed.”

Known for unusual hats and his green school bus

Among the 75 PhDs that McCluskey mentored over the years, one of the earliest is Dan Siewiorek, who earned his doctorate from Stanford in 1971. Siewiorek, today a noted professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, began his studies with McCluskey in 1968, a turbulent year on many campuses. Siewiorek recalled one time when a building on the Stanford campus was occupied by protestors and McCluskey decided to find out what was on the students’ minds.

“He donned his poncho and gaucho hat and joined the discussion circle outside the building,” Siewiorek recalled. “I often wondered whether the protestors realized they were conversing with a Stanford engineering professor.”

Unusual hats were a McCluskey trademark – a collection of thumbnail images shows him wearing headgear from Mickey Mouse ears to a powdered wig – as was the open-mindedness that characterized his personal and professional views.

“He thought ‘out of the box’ in almost every way,” said Michael Flynn, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford, who recalls his former colleague’s charming idiosyncrasies, like the green school bus in which he took his family camping.

The school bus is part of the McCluskey family lore, which began back at Bell Labs, when Edward met and married Roberta Jean Marie Erickson, who became the mother to six children born during the years when he worked at Bell and taught at Princeton.

As McCluskey recalled in his 2008 ACM lecture, it was in order to get his family of eight from Princeton to Stanford that he decided to buy and convert that green bus to move everyone to their new home in Palo Alto.

“I remember riding that bus to California,” said his son Joe McCluskey, who was 7 at the time. “We used to go camping on it all the time. He loved the outdoors. That’s something everyone who knew him would remember.”

Edward and Roberta McCluskey were divorced and she passed away in 1996. In 1981, he married Lois Thornhill McCluskey, who was his companion to the end. In addition to Lois, he is survived by five of his six children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The family asks that anyone wishing to remember Edward McCluskey with a donation make a gift in his name to the Sempervirens Fund, Peninsula Open Space Trust or Save the Redwoods League.

Media Contacts

Tom Abate, Stanford Engineering: (650) 736-2445, tabate@stanford.edu