Stanford engineering professor and inventor John G. Linvill dies at 91

A pioneer of Silicon Valley, John Linvill “transistorized” the Stanford electrical engineering curriculum and helped shape an industry that shaped the world.

John Linvill, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford and inventor of the Optacon reading device for the blind, died on Feb. 19. He was 91.

John Linvill invented the optical-to-tactile converter, or Optacon, as a means to allow his blind daughter, Candy, to read ordinary print.

John Linvill invented the optical-to-tactile converter, or Optacon, as a means to allow his blind daughter, Candy, to read ordinary print. (Image credit: Chuck Painter)

Linvill was a revered figure at Stanford as much for his self-effacing and unpretentious style as for his engineering foresight and his commitment to the entrepreneurial spirit. He chaired the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1964 to 1980 and was a seminal figure in the School of Engineering during the 1960s and ’70s heyday that fed well-trained electrical engineers to an eager and growing Silicon Valley.

Born and raised in Missouri, Linvill received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from William Jewell College in 1941 before enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. After two years as an assistant professor at MIT, Linvill joined Bell Labs, doing research on transistor circuit design problems.

Linvill was content at Bell Labs, but in 1954, Stanford Engineering Dean Fred Terman came calling. Terman had in hand an unexpected gift from Sid Gilfillan, who expressed an interest in bringing someone to Stanford to build a program in the application of transistors. Terman’s search led him to Linvill, who had earned a reputation as a proven and popular teacher while at MIT and an outstanding scholar in research in transistor circuits.

In 1955, Linvill became Stanford’s first appointment in a discipline that helped to shape an industry that in turn shaped the world. While the trajectory of Stanford’s program began with transistor circuit design, it took a dramatic turn in 1956 with the arrival of William Shockley in Palo Alto, the heart what is now Silicon Valley.

A shrewd judge of talent

During Linvill’s career in the Department of Electrical Engineering, he repeatedly exhibited an intuitive understanding of transformative moments in research. He was able to see a breakthrough, to imagine its potential importance and to set in motion the wheels to make sure that Stanford led, always. He was a shrewd judge of his own talents and strengths, and an even shrewder judge of talent in others he wanted to join Stanford to realize the rare opportunity being presented to those with an entrepreneurial bent.

4/23/1980 John G. Linvill, professor of electrical engineering.

John G. Linvill (Image credit: Jose Mercado / Stanford News Service)

It was this quality that led Linvill to contemplate the sort of academic preparation that would best suit electrical engineering students intent on joining the nascent semiconductor industry. Linvill had to decide whether Stanford students would be better served by a curriculum in traditional circuit design or one that included a strong component of semiconductor device physics and fabrication.

Characteristically, Linvill tested his hypotheses on people of insight. In the fall of 1956 – the year William Shockley shared the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor – Linvill realized that he, Terman and Shockley held a similar view: that Silicon Valley would most need electrical engineers skilled in the art of semiconductor device design and fabrication.

Early conversations among the inventors led to a proposal in which Stanford would establish a laboratory where electrical engineering students could research semiconductor devices. But semiconductor fabrication was not yet part of any university curriculum and was, in some circles, considered dangerous for students.

Shockley believed the young professionals in his company were models for a new sort of engineer, and he agreed to provide the training necessary for Stanford to build a device fabrication laboratory. Stanford, in turn, would place a faculty member in Shockley’s firm to learn the technology.

Linvill’s next move was to persuade Jim Gibbons, one of his former PhD students and a future dean of engineering, to accept a 50-50 appointment at Stanford and at Shockley Semiconductor. Linvill’s charge for Gibbons was to set up the lab and help him initiate a research curriculum at Stanford. Lab construction began on Aug. 1, 1957. Just six weeks later, on Sept. 19, Shockley’s model young professionals left his firm en masse to form Fairchild Semiconductor. By then, however, the embryonic Stanford lab was under way, and by March 1958, working with just a student and a technician, Gibbons had succeeded in producing Stanford’s first semiconductor device, a year ahead of schedule.

The first step in Linvill’s vision for solid-state electronics at Stanford was complete. In quick succession he brought on Gerald Pearson, a talented Bell Labs researcher and a co-inventor of the silicon photovoltaic cell, and John Moll, an established expert in the physics of transistor operation and co-inventor of the MOS transistor. Together with Linvill and Gibbons, they created Stanford’s first program in graduate research and education in solid-state devices. Soon, Bill Spicer, Jim Angell and, later, Robert White would enrich Stanford’s faculty. In just a few short years, Linvill had assembled the core of Stanford’s storied Solid State Laboratory, progenitor of several important electrical engineering laboratories at Stanford.

Later, Linvill would entice and mentor integrated circuit pioneers Jim Meindl, founder of Stanford’s Integrated Circuits Laboratory; John Hennessy, founder of MIPS and now president of Stanford; Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics; and Jim Plummer, current dean of the School of Engineering. Many of these early hires and large numbers of students remained lifelong friends.

Invented device to help blind people read

Linvill reveled in his role of mentor. He was genuinely interested in the success of others, especially entrepreneurial success. Linvill applied his engineering creativity and his entrepreneurial spirit to help his daughter, Candy, who became blind in infancy. Linvill sought a way to help her to directly read printed materials without translation into Braille. His solution, using integrated circuits developed in the labs and with the help of colleagues at Stanford and the Stanford Research Institute, was the Optacon (optical-to-tactile converter). The Optacon was a portable device with a small, hand-held camera that could be moved across any type of printed material to generate images on a fingertip-sized tactile display that were then felt and interpreted by a blind reader.

Linvill received a patent for the Optacon in 1966. He was a co-founder in 1970 of Telesensory Systems Inc., a company established to manufacture and disseminate the Optacon worldwide. The Optacon was to become one of the most important examples of how technology could be applied to the development of assistive devices for people with disabilities. In 1971, Industrial Research Inc. named the Optacon one of the 100 most significant products of the year. Helped greatly by her father’s invention, Candy attended Stanford and went on to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology.

The late 1970s demanded a new era of innovation in Stanford’s electrical engineering curriculum. The advent of the microprocessor at Intel introduced electronic hardware controlled by software programs integrated in the system. Linvill and colleagues foresaw that optimum system design would soon require the creation of hardware and software designed for specific applications – computer graphics, for example – and that groundbreaking research would require an effective partnership between electrical engineering and computer science. The result was Stanford’s Center for Integrated Systems (CIS).

Linvill and CIS colleagues anticipated, as well, that with the proper openness, integrated systems research would profit by engaging with forward-looking electronics companies. As co-director of CIS, Linvill conceived and implemented a visitors program in CIS to bring industry professionals to Stanford and the Fellow/Mentor/Advisor (FMA) program that placed Stanford doctoral candidates in industry for a portion of their education. More than 30 years later, CIS has become the model for university-corporate partnerships.

In 2007, at a special celebration surrounded by his family, Linvill was surprised by a group of former students, colleagues and friends who had endowed the Professor John G. Linvill Fellowship Fund, which supports the education of an outstanding graduate student in electrical engineering. Many of those contributors had flown in from across the country to toast their friend and mentor.

In addition to serving as chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Linvill was associate dean of the School of Engineering from 1972 to 1980, and was the Canon USA Professor of Electrical Engineering from its endowment in 1989 until his retirement at the end of 1990. As a professor emeritus, Linvill continued to follow his passions, focusing research on integrated systems.

Linvill was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1960 and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1971 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974. He received the IEEE Education Medal in 1976 and the John Scott Award in 1980 for his work on the Optacon.

Linvill was honored with the American Electronics Association’s Medal of Achievement in 1983 for his significant contributions to the advancement of electronics. He was recipient of the Louis Braille Prize (1984) from the Deutscher Blindenverband for the invention of the Optacon.

John Grimes Linvill was born on Aug. 8, 1919, in Kansas City, Mo. His twin brother, William, also a Stanford professor, died in 1980. He is survived by his wife, Marjorie Linvill, of Palo Alto; a son, Greg (Betty), of Belmont, Calif.; a daughter, Candy Berg (Chris), of Portola Valley, Calif.; two granddaughters, Angela and Alyssa Linvill; and a great grandson, Sato Ramsaran.

A service celebrating Linvill’s life will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club on May 23 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. The family asks that donations in memory of John G. Linvill be made to the LMSarcoma Direct Research Foundation in Tulsa, Okla.

Andrew Myers is associate director of communications at the School of Engineering.