May 13th, 2012

There was a loose end in my piece on the astonishing proliferation of ARM microprocessors. How did they come to dominate the low-power niche? The first processor designed in 1985 by ARM’s ancestor Acorn was for a desktop computer the size and shape of a large typewriter, run off the mains. Surely power efficiency wasn’t a priority?

The answer is: good old British penny-pinching, with an assist from good old Brummagem standards of manufacturing.
From a story by Chris Bidmead for The Register:

BBC Acorn computer

According to [Acorn's co-founder Stephen] Furber. “We designed the ARM for an Acorn desktop product, where power isn’t of primary importance. But it had to be cheap. Cheap meant it had to go in a plastic package, plastic packages have a fairly high thermal resistance, so we had to bring it in under 1W.”

When the first test chips came back from the lab on the 26 April 1985, Furber plugged one into a development board, and was happy to see it working perfectly first time. Deeply puzzling, though, was the reading on the multimeter connected in series with the power supply. The needle was at zero: the processor seemed to be consuming no power whatsoever.

As [the designer Sophie] Wilson tells it: “The development board plugged the chip into had a fault: there was no current being sent down the power supply lines at all. The processor was actually running on leakage from the logic circuits. So the low-power big thing that the ARM is most valued for today, the reason that it’s on all your mobile phones, was a complete accident.”

Wilson had, it turned out, designed a powerful 32-bit processor that consumed no more than a tenth of a Watt.

Of course, somebody would have developed a low-power line of processors: the large potential market in mobile devices was obvious, and the RISC idea had been around for a while. Indeed, ARM has smaller competitors today, such as MIPS. However, it’s a matter of some interest in Britain how, against the odds, and the powerful economies of networking of Silicon Valley, a sleepy university town in the Fens managed to grab and hold on to a gratifyingly large slice of one of the world’s key technologies.

Pure luck? Not quite.
The designer of the chip, Sophie Wilson, was a young man of very superior talent. That’s not a typo: she is transgendered, and at the time was Roger Wilson. He was part of a very small team – including Chris Curry and Andy Hopper as well as Furber and Wilson – brought together at Acorn by an young expatriate Austrian venture capitalist called Hermann Hauser.

Why didn’t Wilson go and sell his high talents for lots of $$$ in Silicon Valley? Cambridge (England) is a nice environment apart from the weather, but so’s the Bay Area. My guess is that his/her transsexuality enormously raised the bar. Cambridge has long been tolerant of sexual diversity; think of Keynes, G.H. Hardy, the Apostles, and Alan Turing, not to mention Burgess and Blunt. Transsexuality is the ultimate test of such understanding, and if you are transgender and have found a safe and accepting environment, you will be very reluctant to leave it.

San Francisco is tolerant too, but Silicon Valley was created by strait-laced mid-Westerners (according to Tom Wolfe’s fine essay on Robert Noyce). Isn’t the hard-driving culture macho in other senses? The risks of moving in 1980 would have been very high to Roger Wilson. Sophie Wilson, presumably a wealthy woman, still lives a life of retiring domesticity in a satellite village near Cambridge. She is clearly strongly attached to the city.

So I suspect that the success of ARM is partly down to Cambridge’s exceptional tolerance. (It’s exceptional by British standards, themselves more relaxed today than middle America’s.) Discrimination is inefficient as well as wrong; and doing the right thing can pay off in the Kingdom of Serendip where we all live on alternate days.

A great engineer:

Sophie Wilson, engineer and pioneer of low-power computing

8 Responses to “Lives of the Great LGBT Engineers”

  1. Mark Kleiman says:

    I wonder whether it’s true that transgender people are way over-represented among the very highest-performing creative people? As far as I know, I’ve never met anyone who has done the full conversion, which suggests a very low density in the population, but adding Sophie Wilson to Wendy Carlos and Deirdre McCloskey makes three transgender people(all male-to-female) whose work I know . That’s not much of a sample size,but it suggests a study worth doing.

  2. Theophylact says:

    You might add Jan Morris to the mix.

  3. MobiusKlein says:

    What about the lives of the adequate LGBT Engineers? They don’t all have to be great, awesome, etc. They deserve some love too!

  4. The most flamboyant transgender person in history may be the 18th-century French soldier, diplomat, spy and celebrity the Chevalier d’Eon. She was a top-class swordsperson and duelist (in either role), which discouraged rash curiosity. Clearly another person of real ability, if not exactly creativity.

    Joan of Arc, anybody? Her adoption of the ultra-masculine role of armed warrior had a religious rather than a sexual origin, but shocked many at the time. Marina Warner is good on the unsuccessful contortions of generations of French royalist conservatives to both recognise that the survival of the French monarchy was due to a cross-dressing visionary and repackage her as acceptable model of submissive French womanhood.

    It takes exceptional nerve to go through with the surgical changes, so you’d expect such people to be high performers.

  5. Maynard Handley says:

    I appreciate the point you are making about Ms Wilson, but, as an engineer, I find it frustrating (and unacceptable) that you claim to explain “How did they come to dominate the low-power niche? ” and then do nothing of the sort. You say that “the low-power usage of the first ARM chip was a complete accident” and then go no further.
    Please, in future, either answer the question, or drop the pretense that you are going to answer it.

    As for the political point being made, it’s presumably worth looking at Tim Cook’s career — he spent twelve years at IBM which is as “strait-laced mid-Westerner” as you get, even today, but which seemed to have no problem hiring people who were clearly talented even if they were gay. I think it’s a mistake to conflate the Silicon Valley of the 60s (when Noyce was at his king-making peak) with the Silicon Valley of the 80s which by then had gone through the 70s and was a lot closer to San Francisco. I’m no expert, but I suspect that, realistically, even in the early 80s Silicon Valley was about as comfortable a place to let your freak flag fly as anywhere on earth, and that it’s foolish to try to score this particular point.
    Ms Wilson obviously had no reason to risk a good situation she KNEW she had, for the chance that Silicon Valley MIGHT be better; but an engineer (even an LGBT one) from pretty much anywhere else on earth could be pretty sure he/she was moving to a better social situation by going to work there. The story of why ARM came to dominate low power is, I’m afraid, a story of the technical decisions and specific markets pursued, not one of which company was most friendly to LGBT engineers. There are obvious and well understood reasons why Intel, SGI, MIPS, SUN, IBM etc pursued performance (at the cost of power) throughout the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

    More interesting is why the competitor companies in the low-power space (products like SuperH for example) were defeated by ARM. I suspect the REAL story is GSM. As GSM took off (a take-off independent of ARM and of the UK as a whole, let’s note) the phones needed a low-power micro-controller, ARM fit the bill, and it was a euro product so politically a better choice than a Japanese micro-controller. ARM were lucky to be in the right place at the right time, though to be fair, they did have enough sense to realize they should exploit the heck out of the niche they had fallen into rather than trying to compete in the high-power/high-performance space.

    • Manard: “You say that “the low-power usage of the first ARM chip was a complete accident””.

      I said no such thing. The Register is quoting Sophie Wilson. Ever heard of British understatement? My explanation is straightforwardly her exceptional ability. Which leads me to my (admittedly speculative) hypothesis that her working for Acorn may have something to do with the comparative working environments faced by a transgender engineer. On Silicon Valley, I’ll defer to a reader with inside experience, which does not appear to include you. But “freak flag” is exactly the sort of casually thoughtless language that transsexuals must fear.

      FWIW, Tim Cook’s stellar career has, according to Wikipedia, been in marketing and manufacturing. In a large company, these aren’t the same environments as those facing a design engineer. Also the level of prejudice facing a gay man in the 1980s wasn’t the same as that facing a transsexual woman.

  6. Maynard Handley says:

    “It takes exceptional nerve to go through with the surgical changes, so you’d expect such people to be high performers.”

    I suspect that neither of these statements are true.
    It takes nerve to go through pretty much any elective surgery. Even LASIK can be terrifying. Back surgery to relieve pain (heck even a lumbar puncture) gives one visions of how one may land up paralyzed for the rest of one’s life. Yet people do it, because he alternative seems far worse — and we don’t track people with LASIK as high performers. Heck, when the elective surgery is breast enhancement or a facelift, most people denigrate it.

    Construing “losing parts of the body that don’t seem to fit anyway” as something that requires “exceptional nerve” seems to me to completely miss the psychology of what is going on here.

    • My impression is that the purely medical challenge – the prospect of a painful recovery at best – is doubled by a revolution in relationships and social identity for which there are few if any parallels; perhaps becoming a monk or nun.

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