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Meet Ross Freeman, Inventor of the First FPGA

Cesca Fleischer

Meet Ross Freeman, Inventor of the First FPGA

ross-freeman

Image courtesy of Alchetron

Before he was Ross Freeman, inventor of the first FPGA, he was Ross Freeman, Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. Freeman served in Ghana, where he taught math and engineering. Maybe this work helped lay the foundation for his later success as the inventor of modern computing.

ross-freeman-earlylife

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Born in Michigan in 1948, Freeman was raised on a farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, eventually attending Michigan State University and earning a degree in physics. In 1971, he received a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois, and he later served in the Peace Corps before designing a custom PMOS circuit at Teletype Corporation. In his early 30s, Freeman rose to Director of Engineering for the Components Division at Zilog.

xilinx

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In 1984, after some fundraising, Ross Freeman, Bernard Vonderschmitt, and James V. Barnett II founded a company called Xilinx. Freeman speculated that transistors would experience a fall in price and eventually invented the field programmable gate array (FPGA), making the FPGA an economical solution for a variety of applications. Vonderschmitt took inspiration from Wilf Corrigan at LSI Logic, and Freeman ran with it. By 1986, Freeman was recognized by the San Jose Mercury News as one of Silicon Valley’s Rising Stars.

Bill Carter, who was the eighth employee, argued that an FPGA on an SRAM cell would lead to a volatile design, but Freeman didn’t think it would matter. Designs with flip-flop could be initialized as they powered up, which meant that non-volatility was no longer a priority. Carter was initially skeptical, but with Freeman’s idea and Vonderschmitt’s proclamation that large wafer fabs were inefficient, the industry was transformed.

“It was a radical concept that required lots of transistors at a time when transistors were considered extremely precious. Ross challenged the predominant belief that ‘fewer transistors are better.’ Even though many considered it outlandish, he was convinced the technology would stand the test of time,” Carter said.

Unfortunately, Freeman didn’t live to see the FPGA fully change the industry — he died tragically young from complications of a disease he contracted while serving in the Peace Corp in 1989. His business, however, went on to become a multi-billion dollar company, and in 2006, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Xilinx honours Freeman’s memory by presenting an annual Ross Freeman Award for Technical Innovation to employees who are nominated and chosen by a vote taken from technical staff.

ross-freeman

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Because of Freeman’s vision, his company holds over 50 percent of market share in the programmable logic device industry and has chips in automotive, industrial, medical, aerospace, defense, consumer, and wireless communications, across applications. They are, by anyone’s standards, wildly successful.

Ross Freeman is remembered as a media-savvy, smart, warm leader, and his contributions to the industry continue to this day. He had a unique ability to see beyond the current market by thinking outside the box, and his collaboration with engineers resulted in something truly innovative.

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