The Lemelson-MIT Program has awarded its annual Lemelson-MIT Prize to Carver Mead, a visionary in the field of microelectronics, and its Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award to retired DuPont polymer chemist Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar and other materials.
The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize is awarded annually to a living American inventor who has "significantly contributed to society through invention and who has shown a tireless commitment to stimulating invention and creativity in the US."
Major innovations by Dr. Mead, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at the California Institute of Technology, include what is now called HEMT, the standard amplifying device used in microwave communication systems, which consumers use every day when making telephone calls or dialing into the Internet. HEMT is also used in satellite and fiber optic links and cellular telephones.
Professor Mead is also well known for pioneering computer automation through his design concept for VLSI (very-large-scale integrated) circuits, called structured custom design, which is used today by all semiconductor companies. His work with VLSI is also aimed at teaching engineering students how to design microchips, directly contributing to an explosion in the number of new chips on the market.
His other work involves experimenting with neuromorphic electronic systems, which are systems that are closely modeled on the functions of living nervous systems. He and his students hold key patents on systems modeled after the vision, hearing and learning of humans. Products based on these principles have the potential to transform the interface between computers and images, sounds and people, said Professor Mead, who has taught at Caltech for more than 40 years and holds more than 50 patents.
"The Lemelson-MIT Program is helping us all move forward toward a new model where we find greater respect and acceptance for those who think unconventionally," Professor Mead said. "There are young people out there all the time thinking of new ways to do things. It is really great that programs like Lemelson-MIT exist to encourage those people to set their own course."
Dr. Kwolek was honored for a lifetime of achievement in polymer science. Her inventions in this area include the Kevlar fiber, used in 200 applications from brake pads to bullet-proof vests; Lycra Spandex; and Nomex, a fiber used for fire protection and electrical insulation. She received a kinetic trophy created especially for the Lemelson-MIT Program by MIT artist-in-residence Arthur Ganson.
Dr. Kwolek's research revolutionized the polymers industry in the 1960s, when she developed the first liquid crystal polymer fiber, a new type of synthetic material. She eventually spun out a solution that resulted in synthetic fibers that were astonishingly stiffer and stronger than any created in the past. Her lab's work on finding a commercial version of the liquid crystal polymers resulted in the creation of Kevlar, a fiber five times stronger ounce-for-ounce than steel, with about half the density of fiberglass.
The best-known application of Kevlar is in bulletproof vests; in this use alone, Dr. Kwolek's discovery has saved thousands of lives. The fiber has found its way into almost every industry, from the automotive field to recreation to telecommunications.
Dr. Kwolek continued polymer research at DuPont until her retirement in 1986. She still consults there part-time, where she serves as a respected mentor to young scientists, especially women. She is the recipient or co-recipient of 17 US patents.
"Although I've made many strides in my field, those were not enlightened times for the recognition and advancement of women in scientific research," she said. "I recommend that parents encourage their daughters to pursue scientific careers, if they are so inclined, in the same way they would their sons. The opportunities for both sexes are far more equal now."
The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes the nation's most talented inventors and innovators and promotes living role models in science, engineering, medicine, and entrepreneurship in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their example. One of America's most prolific inventors, Jerome H. Lemelson (1923-1997) and his wife, Dorothy, established the Lemelson-MIT Program at MIT in 1994. Administered solely by MIT and based at the Sloan School of Management, the program is guided by internationally recognized economist Professor Lester C. Thurow.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 28).