Meet Ross Freeman, Inventor of the First FPGA

Edwin Robledo August 5, 2022 2 min read

Although his life was cut tragically short, Ross Freeman accomplished incredible things in life, including inventing the first FPGA.

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Image courtesy of Alchetron

Before he became Ross Freeman, inventor of the first field programmable gate array (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.

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Born in 1948, Freeman grew up on a farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He eventually attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in physics. In 1971, he received a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois. 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.

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Inventions and business ventures

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 FPGA. He made the FPGA an economical solution for various applications. Vonderschmitt took inspiration from Wilf Corrigan at LSI Logic, and Freeman ran with it. By 1986, the San Jose Mercury News recognized Freeman as one of Silicon Valley’s Rising Stars.

Bill Carter, a Xilinx 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 initialize as they powered up. This 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 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.

Freeman’s legacy lives on

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

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

The industry remembers Ross Freeman as a media-savvy, smart, warm leader. 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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