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Richard M. White
In Memoriam

Richard M. White

Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Born in Denver, Colorado, on April 25, 1930, Richard (Dick) White, an only child, began a lifelong attraction to nature and the outdoors through early happy outings in the mountains and wilderness at Denver’s edge. When he completed high school, he participated in a competition (sponsored by the Pepsi Cola Co.) and was awarded a four-year scholarship to any U.S. university to which he was admitted. At Harvard, his choice, White enrolled in a program in engineering science and physics and developed a strong interest in electromechanical modeling and its application to practical devices and systems. His results and interest in this work led him to earn A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard successively in 1951, 1952, and 1956. His Ph.D. thesis studied the scattering of sound waves at a cylindrical bore in a solid; this project was equally daunting from both analytical and experimental perspectives, and it inspired methods for non-destructive evaluation (NDE) of structures, e.g., oil bores, using ultrasound waves.

After Harvard, Dick moved to Palo Alto, California, becoming a research scientist in the Microwave Division at General Electric (GE) labs. He rediscovered the photoacoustic effect (originally described by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880) while exploring methods to locate and mitigate arcing in traveling wave tubes used for filtering and radar applications. His use of a ruby laser to produce a sound wave led to a publication that inspired laser-based non-destructive evaluation of structures, e.g., for fighter aircraft, health monitoring, and identification of flaws in pipes and bars.

Dick returned to academia in 1962, joining the Electrical Engineering Department at UC Berkeley. Here, while attempting to demonstrate piezoelectric surface acoustic wave amplifiers, he applied his knowledge of periodic structures and spaced electrodes used by the traveling wave tubes of his GE days to invent interdigitated transducers (IDTs) for surface acoustic wave (SAW) devices. The confluence of Dick’s invention and the early 1960s start of the Berkeley Microfabrication Laboratory made possible the first demonstration of such IDTs. Dick’s IDTs subsequently enabled a myriad of practical applications for SAW devices, from the sensors used for NDE, to the billions of IDT-equipped SAW filters that enable smartphones by cleaning up transmitted and received antenna signals before they hit processing electronics. Simply put, anyone with a smartphone is using Dick’s invention.

Upon exposure to self-paced courses while participating in the Science and Math Education Graduate Group, Dick introduced a series of self-paced computer programming courses at Berkeley, first in Fortran, later in Basic. Self-paced programming courses eventually became institutionalized at the university and over the years have benefited tens of thousands of students. On the research front, Dick, together with his close colleague Richard Muller, founded the Berkeley Sensor & Actuator Center (BSAC) in 1986. Over its more than three-decade existence (so far), BSAC has pioneered and propelled Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS) technology to a state where it permeates society in products that enable smartphones, smart cars, wearable sensors, high density displays, biometrics, and immunotherapy, to name just a few.

Dick received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968 and was made a fellow of the IEEE in 1972 "for contributions to the discovery and applications of surface elastic waves." He received the IEEE Cledo Brunetti Award in 1986 and became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1994. The IEEE honored him twice more, with its coveted Rayleigh Award in 2003 for contributions to the field of ultrasonics, and in 2013 with its James Clerk Maxwell Medal, a prestigious IEEE Field Award jointly sponsored by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which he shared with Richard Muller “for pioneering innovation and leadership in micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology." Dick was elected a Life Fellow of the IEEE later in his career as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1994.

Dick passed away peacefully at the age of 90 on August 14, 2020, in his Berkeley home, in the presence of his family. He is survived by his two sons, Rolland (Rollie) White, and Brendan White, and four grandchildren. A tree in the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden commemorates Dick with the inscription “This Quercus rugosa (Mexican Oak) honors Professor Richard M. White; devoted to nature and to his Cal colleagues.”
Clark T.-C. Nguyen
Richard S. Muller