John G. Linvill

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

John Linvill, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford and inventor of the Optacon reading device for the blind, died on February 19, 2011. He was 91.

John LinvillLinvill 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. Read Full Article »



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John Linvill was the chair when I came to Stanford as a graduate student and when I was hired as an assistant professor. To me he was a bigger than life figure, the symbol of EE at Stanford, a visionary, and above all a wonderful and kind human being. His impact will forever live in the halls of Stanford.

I am grateful to John both for his personal warmth and advice, and for his key role in making Stanford's EE Department into a powerhouse from which I benefited immensely. To put my gratitude in perspective, John was Chair during my graduate work (1966-68) and my first nine years on the faculty (1971-80). I also had the pleasure of working closely with him as Associate Chair during 1978-80. He will be missed.

John hired me as a faculty member and gave me free rein to work on the subjects that interested me, which at the time were a bit off the beaten path for EEs. He built EE at Stanford into a department with national stature, introducing classes on solid state electronics and hiring Jim Meidel to start an integrated circuit program. It's hard to think of any other EE Chair who had this kind of impact, other than Fred Terman. He left a lasting imprint on EE and on Stanford.

I remember one of the first times I talked to John Linvill; he was in New York for IEEE business but called to offer me a job at Stanford as Assistant Professor and to “close the deal” for my coming to Stanford; that was 1971—40 years ago. Certainly coming to Stanford was the best career decision I ever made, despite the fact that my two closest classmates were at Bell Labs and I really wanted to be there with them.

John’s former PhD student, Larry McBride, had convinced John and Jim Meindl that computer-aided design, especially for device modeling, was something Stanford needed. The fact that I was at Berkeley and was teaching classes that used SPICE—the brand new circuit simulation tool—was my ticket to being offered the Stanford job.

Coming to Stanford was quite different from Berkeley, although campus unrest at both places related to the Vietnam War had some common elements—sit-ins, demonstrations, protest rallies, etc. As EE Department Chair and my key mentor for teaching and research in the area of modeling, John was truly outstanding. My thesis advisor at Berkeley, Richard Muller, had given me John’s book on lumped modeling of devices (the so-called “Linvill Lumps”) and during the first time I taught EE 216 I created a small FORTRAN program to show how the lumped model results compared to the exact solution for diffusion current in a PN junction—a baby-step towards what was to follow.

In addition to mentoring my teaching, John helped me to network with key government agencies (i.e. NSF, JSEP and ARO) that became the first research sponsors of my career. On the industrial side, the legacy of Hewlett-Packard in changing the face of Stanford is legendary; the impact of HP on my career was no different.

John introduced me first to Zvonko Fazarinc at HP Labs and then Merrill Brooksby, in Corporate Engineering—both groups had a profound impact on my career. Zvonko got me started in mini-computer based device simulation, using his own version of “lumped modeling” and corporate engineering provided me with amazing hardware—a 16 bit “mini-computer” machine, with disc-operating system (DOS), 5 Mega-Bytes (wow!) of back-up storage, and punched paper tape as the key input device—these were truly the early days of personal computing! Subsequently, for more than a decade, HP provided ongoing research support for my fledgling research program in computer-aided design—both the funding of students and generous equipment grants as well.

John and Marjorie Linvill were an amazing couple in their thoughtful, kind and fun interactions at all levels—professionally and socially. John always had time to talk about either the “big stuff” or the “fun stuff.” Together John and Marjorie were always playful and funny. At the same time you could talk to them about virtually anything and they were both great listeners; as a junior faculty you really need that kind of support.

Fast forwarding to the mid-1980s, John’s vision for industrial partnerships with the university was truly revolutionary. In the tradition of Fred Terman when he came to Stanford and became “The Father of Silicon Valley,” John took interactions between the university and industry to a whole new level. In collaboration with Jim Meindl and Jim Gibbons, they master minded a plan and gathered the industrial support of companies to not only fund the building of the CIS facility—now named the Paul Allen Building—but to build an organization that has endured for more than 25 years and is still going strong.

It was my great pleasure to direct the research within CIS for more than ten years. John was again my main mentor, liaison with engaging the executive partners and then my best “cheer leader” in his unique optimistic way. In fact, the image that stands out as brightly as his smile on the picture on the wall in the CIS 101 Linvill Conference Room, is John’s uncanny and infectious ability to bring out the best in people and to effect the most favorable outcome from interactions.

Both of my parents met John and Marjorie on several occasions and would always ask about them. For me John was very much like another father. In thinking about John’s persona as well as his impact in build teams of people and his mentorship, an image of John Wooden comes to mind—I suppose it’s the connection with my dad who was a professor at UCLA and huge basketball fan. John Linvill was a true gentleman in every sense of the word; he changed the intellectual landscape at Stanford both in the teams he built and the collaborative research models that he pioneered. I am truly honored and blessed to have been recruited, coached and to play on the team that our John Linvill built. We are all blessed with his legacy as an educator and innovator.

One of the first meetings which I had with Professor John Linvill was the time when Toshiba wanted to join Stanford Industrial Affiliate program in late 70's. Those were the days of US-Japan semiconductor war in which some of US executives, such as Bob Noyce, was quite vocal for not accepting Japanese companies to the Affiliate. One evening we had a dinner with John, Bob and several others at which there were serious debates on the subject of possible Toshiba membership for Stanford Industrial Affiliate program. Next morning I went to John's office with no expectation for Toshiba joining the Affiliate program. John said, "Since we already had enough discussions, let's move on". I said, " I guess that means Toshiba cannot join the program?" He said with smile on his face," No that is not the case. You are IN now", which really made my day, and since then Toshiba has been one of the most active members of Industrial Affiliate, followed by CIS member with a number of visiting scholars, donations including Toshiba professor chair. I certainly learned a lot through this incidence about American culture which later helped me a lot in running HP's silicon lab and TI R&D. After joining HP, I had frequent meetings with John about how industry and Stanford can work better. Out of such lunch conversations he suggested a mechanism for faculty and industrial engineer/researcher co-advise a PhD student by which the student can learn from both sides as well as university and industry understand and appreciate each other much better. So, I worked with Prof. Krishna Saraswat in co-advising one of his PhD students, Tim Schreyer. Tim and I met every Friday after hours which went quite well, and later this became CIS FMA program. This is just an example of his vision and leadership, which built the way CIS works successfully today. John is certainly the person who will be missed a lot, but at the same time everybody will remember and benefit from what he left for us.

John Linvill was the leader who, by the mid seventies, had made Stanford's Electrical Engineering Department the best in the world. It was his strategy of successfully combining academia and industry, that has made this department so effective. The formation of CIS is the prime example of this strategy and I was witness to enough of the early discussions to know that it took a lot of effort and persuasion on his part to make it happen.

He was the man that hired me into the department. I always enjoyed talking to him; he was a man that asked good question and listened to answers. Imaginative and insightful; the CIS concept was his.

A gentle figure that filled a room. In his shadow is the current Stanford EE department, CIS and much of the technology accomplishments of the field over the past several decades.