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two wizards from westinghouse

A couple of years ago while working on a story about MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems), I came upon Dr. Harvey Nathanson, one of the founding fathers of the MEMS industry, who spoke with particular fondness about his colleague and collaborator, Robert A. (Bob) Wickstrom, a talented laboratory technician who, Harvey claimed, could make any idea work, no matter how good or bad.

While researching this column, Harvey and I went to Bob’s house for a personal interview and 20-year reunion. After a filial embrace, the reunited team took a trip down memory lane while I acted as a proverbial fly on the wall and Bob's wife, Ann, and daughter, Pat, fed us to the point of stuffing.

Harvey and Bob met in 1962 after Harvey, bearing a newly minted Ph.D. from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, joined the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Churchill, Pa. Bob had only a few night courses at Pitt, but owing to his innate ability, he had served as a transistor technology instructor for the Army during the Korean War.

Bob holds two patents. Harvey holds 39 and has six pending. Together, they share a patent for the resonant gate transistor (RGT), a device that resulted in some of the fundamental techniques of MEMS production.

Although MEMS are commonplace today, in the 1960s the worlds of classical mechanics and solid-state physics were generally thought to be at opposite ends of the technology spectrum. However, Harvey and Bob’s boss, Dr. William E. Newell (now deceased), believed that the integration of the two fields held great potential. Inspired by Newell, Harvey designed the resonant gate transistor to serve as a tuner for microelectronic radios. Although that application was never realized, the innovations that Harvey and Bob and the rest of their team developed while working on it enabled the advent of the MEMS industry.

The device required a microscopic cantilever a few hundred thousandths of a meter in diameter and a few 10 thousandths of a meter long to be affixed to a substrate a few millionths of a meter above a transistor. As usual, Harvey came up with the design and it fell to Bob to prove the concept.

He did so by hand, soldering whisker-sized pieces of tungsten wire to a substrate as he peered through a microscope, a feat so daunting that Harvey still marvels today.

Meanwhile, back in the think-tank, Harvey knew that soldering microscopic wires manually would preclude mass production. So, he turned to photolithographic etching, a technology that the burgeoning microelectronics industry used every day. But, Harvey and Bob took conventional etching a step further by devising a sacrificial mask to hold newly deposited material on a level plane during deposition to be washed away later, leaving a space underneath. The result was layers, cantilevers, tuning forks, bridges, springs, gears and other movable features within integrated circuits, where nothing could move before. As usual, Harvey dreamed up the idea and Bob made it work. He did so by mastering the art and science of photolithographic masking, deposition, etching and cleaning microscopic features on silicon and gallium arsenide substrates. As a consequence of his contributions, Bob won the uncommon distinction of receiving an honorary Ph.D., along with its attendant salary, from Westinghouse.

Today, both men are in their 70s. Bob is retired and lives in Export, Pa. Harvey is semi-retired, lives in Squirrel Hill and still consults half-time as Chief Scientist Emeritus for Westinghouse Defense Systems' successor, Northrop Grumman, in Baltimore.

Near the end of our visit, we posed for photos. A few days ago, Bob sent a very nice shot of the three of us smiling at the camera. As a proverbial fly on the wall, I'm not sure I should have been included, but it’s such a nice picture, I bought a frame and hung it in my office. It’s an honor to be in such good company.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

© Copyright 2007, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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