Historical Engineers: Harvey C. Nathanson Leaves Legacy as the Father of MEMS

December 07, 2019 by Robin Mitchell

On November 22, Harvey C. Nathanson passed away, leaving a legacy as the father of the first MEMS device.

On November 22, a legend of the electronics community, Harvey C. Nathanson, passed away. In this historical piece, we will look at the contributions and inventions made possible thanks to the work of Harvey C. Nathanson.


Beginnings as a Maker

Harvey C. Nathanson was born on October 22, 1936, and grew up a son of a pharmacist in Morningside, Pennsylvania.

From a young age, Nathanson could be described as a maker, wielding an interest in mail-order electronic kits and using these to build many projects including Hi-Fi systems. It was then that he began teaching himself the workings of electronic products.


A Hi-Fi stereo console from 1964.

A Hi-Fi stereo console from 1964, which would have been common during Nathanson's lifetime. Image (modified) used courtesy of Classic Film

His passion for those projects led Nathanson to decline his father's invitation to run the family pharmaceutical business and instead pursue a career in electronics.

Nathanson earned an engineering degree from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), and went on to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the same institution.


Creator of the First MEMS

Following his rigorous academic training, Nathanson applied to work for Westinghouse Research Labs. There, he developed an idea for creating a microscopic tuning device for electronic radios in 1965.

He hatched the idea as a solution to the problematic component choice and achievement of high Q circuitry, which would often be far too sensitive for component variation. 

The device, called the Resonant Gate Transistor, was further co-developed with Robert A. Wickstrom and E. Newell; the resulting device was the world's first MEMS device.

The MEMS device had a transistor with a gate that was not directly connected to the transistor structure but instead fixed on a cantilever that could oscillate above the transistor silicon structure.


the first MEMs device

The patent image of the first MEMS device, filed in 1968. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Since the gate could only oscillate at a specific range of frequencies, the gate would ignore frequencies that fell outside its natural frequency of vibration.

Therefore, the transistor could filter out input signals and could be used to produce resonant circuits with a high Q factor.


Inventor of the Modern Projector

Nathanson's work with MEMS continued for many decades. He further developed MEMS creation technology with the use of multiple layers, sacrificial layers, and undercutting.

Another key technology Nathanson developed was the electronic projector. He envisioned a product with small mirrors at angles that could be electronically controlled; this would enable light to reflect and project an image. It wasn't long before Nathanson filed a patent for the concept.


electrostatically deflectable light valves for projection displays.

Diagram from Nathanson's patent on electrostatically deflectable light valves for projection displays. Image from Free Patents Online

As a result, the majority of digital projectors today use the basic tenents of Nathanson's original projector concept. In this way, Nathanson helped to revolutionize large displays and presentations all around the world.


Passing on Knowledge

Over Nathanson's 50-years career, he filed more than 50 patents in the field of solid-state electronics. The year before Nathanson's retirement, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers awarded the engineer with the Millennium Medal for his groundbreaking innovations.

Despite his retirement in 2001, he continued to provide consultations for fellow engineers and students for another decade.

Harvey C. Nathanson's work revolutionized how engineers view silicon. The MEMS device that Nathanson and his cohorts created more than 50 years ago offset a technological revolution in micromachines that rotate, vibrate, and react in a world of their own.


More on MEMS

Read up on the modern discussion of MEMS that Harvey Nathanson started over 50 years ago. 

Introduction to MEMS (Microelectromechanical Systems)

Improving on the Electret: An Introduction to MEMS Microphones

MEMS Vibration Monitoring: From Acceleration to Velocity

Piezoelectric Speakers and Ultrasonic Sensors Abound: A MEMS-Based Audio Roundup

MEMS Magnetic Sensing and Stimulating Brain Implants

Share Your Memories

Were you one of the engineers whose life was changed when the first MEMS device was introduced? Please share your recollections of that time period.



Which engineer would you like to see discussed next? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below.