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European Commission Honors Homegrown Tech Inventors

Lifetime achievement awards will be bestowed upon the Italian "father of the microchip" and the German inventor of the MP3 format.

W. David Gardner

April 11, 2006

3 Min Read

In an effort to boost recognition of European innovation, the European Commission (EC) and European Patent Office (EPO) announced the names of inventors to receive lifetime achievement awards including men who pioneered the microchip and the MP3 format.

Italy native Federico Faggin was cited as the "father" of the microchip and Karlheinz Brandenburg of Germany was named as the inventor of the MP3 format. Both had strong connections to Silicon Valley in the U.S. Faggin did his most innovative work at Intel in California and, later, at the company he founded, Zilog. Brandenburg's work gained traction when the German scientist took his work to Silicon Valley in 1997.

The international jury established by the EC and the EPO also named 11 recipients for "European Inventor of the Year" from 9 countries. Most hailed from industrial and academic team backgrounds.

"The panel's selection is clear evidence that major R&D achievements, especially in marketable high-tech fields, are nowadays primarily the result of teamwork and co-operation," said EPO president Alain Pompidou in a statement. "Obtaining patent protection for this research is a key to successful product marketing."

The sponsors of the program said by citing the inventions and innovations, they want to strengthen Europe's position as a dynamic center for science and innovation in the context of the European Union's Lisbon Agenda, which seeks to improve economic growth and competition among the EC's nation members.

The jury also nominated a non-electronics inventor for a lifetime achievement award, the U.K.'s James Dyson, an inventor with 130 patents to his name, who developed the vacuum cleaner principle that bears his name. Faggin worked in Italy initially, but then moved to Silicon Valley where he carried out the microprocessor work at Intel, laboring alongside other pioneers Ted Hoff and Stanley Mazor. Their work focused on a 4-bit chip for Japanese firm Busicom. Working on an 8-bit chip at the same time was Datapoint's Vic Poor, whose instruction set for the Intel 8008 still exists in rudimentary form in many modern processors. An initial patent for the microprocessor was awarded to Gilbert Hyatt, but was later invalidated.

"Intel in those days (early 1970s) was a memory company," Faggin recalled in a 2001 speech. "Microprocessors were important only insofar as they helped sell memory chips. I had always felt a second-class citizen at Intel. I believed in microprocessors so I decided to start my own company, completely dedicated to the new business (Zilog)."

Brandenburg carried out his innovative research while working for the German government's Frauenhofer Institute. He has had little publicity and hasn't experienced much financial profit from his labors.

Brandenburg recently told the German magazine Der Spiegel: "I don't care what the numbers are in my bank account, but I am satisfied with my work, the people I work with, and what it has brought about."

After Brandenburg developed MP3, he initially marketed it as shareware, making it easy for others to create their own MP3 files or software. On a trip to Silicon Valley in 1997, he showed how his handiwork could be reduced from a WAV file to a file a fraction of the original size.

Another U.S. scientist, Charles E. Perkins of the Nokia Research Center in California, was cited for his earlier data encryption work at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York.

The lifetime achievement and recent inventors will be honored at a two-day celebration in May.

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