Friday, April 17, 2015

Mark Dean: "There may be obstacles, but there are no limits."

Mark E. Dean joined IBM in 1980 right after he graduated from the University of Tennessee. Within a year, Dean led a team that developed the Industry Standard Architecture bus in 1981, which would allow computers to print out information and integrate with other external devices. He would hold three of the nine parents associated with that revolutionary IBM Model 5150,  which was first released on August 12, 1981.

Less than 20 years later, Dean would lead a team that in 1999 developed the first gigahertz chip, which was able to process a billion calculations in one second.

In between times, Dean would develop the color monitor as he would eventually hold 40 patents. And in 1992, he earned his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford.

Not bad for a kid from the Smoky Mountains who was among the first black students to integrate Jefferson City, Tennessee, schools. Born in Jefferson City on March 2, 1957, Dean's father was a dam supervisor for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Young Mark Dean enjoyed the times he tagged along with his father on dam inspections, which would inspire his love of engineering, as would building a tractor from scratch with his father. Education was important; his grandfather was a high school principal.

“When the schools were desegregated I was really bored,” he told Austin American-Statesman journalist Lori Hawkins. “I couldn't read worth a darn, but all I cared about was math anyway.”

He was a smart young man and hard worker, so much so that a white friend in sixth grade once asked him if he were really black.

"That was the problem -- the assumption about what blacks could do was tilted," Dean said years later, after he earned his doctorate.

He also said he initially received soft prejudice when he began work at IBM. Later he would become the first black IBM Fellow. But he also entered the University of Tennessee under a program designed to help minority students earn engineering degrees. Later, he was philosophical about it.

"A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be. There may be obstacles, but there are no limits. With technology, if you can talk about it, that means it's possible," he told

At Jefferson City High School, Dean was an athlete and a straight-A student. While in high school he built his own computer, radio, and amplifier. College followed, which led to a job as a researcher for IBM in Boca Raton, Florida. While he was inventing integral parts of the first IBM PC, Dean worked on his master's degree from Florida Atlantic University.

"IBM introduced the 286-AT computer in 1984. It was the first model to be mass-marketed to consumers, and it revolutionized home and small business computing. With colleague Dennis Moeller, Dean devised the PC’s ISA bus, a driver device that sent information from the keyboard to the printer and allowed the computer’s central processing unit to communicate with these and other external devices. It would be used in later applications with a computer’s mouse, stereo speakers, and even networking systems," historian Carol Brennan wrote.

Years later, Dean recalled those early years in an interview with Roger Witherspoon.

"We didn’t have a clue," Dean told Witherspoon. "The PC was just an interesting thing we did. If we sold 200,000 PCs we thought we would do well, and pay off the investment, and then we would go off and do something else. We just had hopes we would sell enough to justify the project.

"We could not foresee where this was headed, that the PC would allow us to be more productive. The PC allowed you to create and get information more quickly than on paper. It had tremendous value, but we didn’t recognize certain businesses that needed that capability."

Dean's genius is in seeing more than one solution to a problem.

“The tricky part is picking one and getting on with it,” Dean told U.S. News and World Report writer Frank McCoy. “If you miss a goal, that’s not a catastrophe. You just reset.”

He also told McCoy, “Information will be the currency of the next millennium. That’s where the money will be made. The opportunities are going to be endless.”

Despite his commercial success, Dean realized he needed a doctorate.

"When I was accepted at Stanford I had been out of school for ten years, so it was very difficult. I encourage people to go on to graduate school, but they should not wait as long as I did. It makes it very hard, But for me it was definitely the right thing to do and Stanford was the right place to do it. In hindsight, Stanford was the best choice because I already knew what I wanted to work on and both David Dill and then Mark Horowitz enthusiastically supported me in pursuing the research tropic I wanted to work on. The research I engaged in as a graduate student was very prudent, in that while some of the technology isn't necessarily what we are doing today, it did allow me to better understand the best ways (pros and cons of certain approaches) to approach the development of processes. I came to Stanford with no knowledge of either circuits or processes, I knew logic design, architectures, bus interfaces and protocol, but I had no real knowledge of transistors, silicon processes and circuits. Stanford was my first exposure to custom circuits design to building things at transistor level. I am now managing a group focused on high-speed circuit design and I couldn't have done it without the background I received at Stanford," Dean told

Dean now is a John Fisher Distinguished Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Engineering. The awards for his pioneering work with PCs have rolled in: IBM Fellow,  National Institute of Science Outstanding Scientist Award, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, member of the National Academy of Engineering, IEEE Fellow, Black Engineering of the Year, the University of Tennessee COE Dougherty Award, member of the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Ronald H. Brown American Innovators Award -- just to name a few.

He accepts the awards not out of personal ego, but to inspire others.

“I do this because I feel it’s important. I feel I need to increase awareness of the contributions of African American engineers to the African American community and the industry in general,” Dean told Terry Costlow in an interview with Electronic Engineering Times. “Most people don’t know African Americans [have] contributed so much to technology.”

For most of this nation's history, black people were never given the chance to use their talents to the fullest. The nation and the world are poorer for this. But in the last half-century, opportunities have opened for people of all races. The world is better for Mark Dean's contribution to the personal computer.

Which he now says is a relic of the past.

"While PCs will continue to be much-used devices," wrote Dr. Dean on the A Smarter Planet blog in 2011, "they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records... and incandescent light bulbs. I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well. My primary computer now is a tablet."

Science and technology move forward -- quicker and surer when all people are involved in that progression.


  1. Don, As a former IBM'er I really enjoyed this story

    1. Thanks. Scientist ones scare me because I know so little about it

  2. "... IBM Model 5150, which had a 4.77 hertz processor ..."

    Slower than a second grader doing arithmetic?