Howdy from Richard Newell to the West High Class of ’73!

Sorry, I won’t make to our 50th anniversary reunion due to some international travel plans.  However, here is the story of what I have been up to during these 50 years.

After graduation I enrolled in the Univ. of Iowa Electrical Engineering program with my best friend Rich Altmaier.  We took almost all the same classes.  We had taken first-year calculus by commuting to the UI math department while still at West High, so our college advisor dropped us in the deep end of the pool, assigning us both Thermodynamics and Electromagnetic Field Theory our very first full-time semester.  Both of those courses assumed you already knew 2nd-year calculus, which we were just starting class for, so it was quite challenging.  Later, we were given post-graduate (5th-year) versions of Communications Systems and Control Systems by our third year.  Rich and I were the only ones there that weren’t prepared by the undergraduate versions of these courses, which we skipped over.  In spite of these challenges, and in my case the distraction of imbibing beer with my Engineering Fraternity mates, I managed to do acceptably academically.  Rich skipped the beer and did better yet..

After high school, in order to get more freedom, I moved out of my mother’s home into a local apartment with Tim Thomas (our friend from West High), Phil Altmaier (one of Rich’s younger brothers), and another guy.  The next year, five of us from my Engineering fraternity rented a house together.  Sometime after graduation from college, I helped found the local fraternity housing corporation that eventually purchased a house and I served on the fraternity’s national board of directors for a few terms.

After we graduated (in just three years) Rich went on to post-graduate studies at Stanford in California and I went directly to work at Motorola in the Chicago suburbs.  For several months I was too young to drink regular beer or hard liquor in Illinois, even though I had a college degree and a full-time job.

At Motorola, I designed a modem for a base station for two-way radios and walkie-talkies used by first responders and taxicabs.  It had a Motorola 6800  8-bit microcontroller chip and a bunch of analog circuitry.  What today we would call the BIOS had to fit in 256 bytes.  I helped install an antenna for the first such base station on the roof of the Sears Tower, which at the time was the tallest building in the world.  Our team was about a dozen engineers in a large room.  Next door was a similar room with another dozen engineers.  They were the entire worldwide cell phone industry at that time, and invented the AMPS cell phone system and the first handsets.  

I didn’t much care for living in Chicago and so after a couple of years I moved back to Iowa and got a job at what was then Rockwell-Collins in Cedar Rapids (now Raytheon Aerospace) where I designed automatic pilots for jets.  That advanced control theory course came in useful, after all.  I seem to recall both Rich and I got an A+ in that class even though everyone else but us already had their undergraduate degree. It certainly paid off in this job for me, though the way Rich’s career evolved this particular course probably didn’t help him as much as me.

Autopilot work was a lot of fun.  I did a lot of flight testing in Collins’ SabreLiner business jet flying out of the Cedar Rapids airport, in addition to analysis and design back in the office.  We even had a big (room-sized) analog computer that I programmed with patch cables.  There were a few exciting moments, like when I started an electrical fire on board the SabreLiner (not good!) and had to stay up late to fix it since there was a big customer demo flight the next morning.  Or, when flying in a prototype Falcon 50 jet over southern France – the most aesthetically pleasing business jet still to this day and one of the only ones with three engines – we pulled over three g’s.  I suggested to the French test pilot he disengage the autopilot but he wanted to let it run and see what was going to happen.  I was hoping that wouldn’t be the wings popping all their rivets and ripping off.  He and the copilot had ejection seats, and I did not.  All I had was astronaut insurance (since these airplanes were uncertified), and no heirs.  That was the last of the analog autopilots (and analog computers, for that matter).  Then I designed the first digital autopilot used in general aviation using an Intel 16-bit 8086 at its core.  This is before Intel introduced the 8088 which was later used in the first IBM personal computers.  Meanwhile, Rich was working at Intel on the 8087 floating-point coprocessor companion chip.  It was very advanced for its time and did around 50,000 floating-point operations per second (FLOPS), but it wasn’t available in time for my project.

Coming out is something you do your whole life… friends, parents, co-workers, and so on.  But first, is oneself. This brings me to 1980 and I am 24 years old.  That year I decided I like boys more than girls.  I am not sure why it took me so long.  Maybe everyone knew I was gay except me (and Mom seemed taken off-guard, too).  So, I stopped dating girls and about a year later I moved with my first serious boyfriend to California.  I was lucky not to have too much homophobia in my family or at work, except for one uncle from whom I became estranged.

At my first job in California, I designed gyroscopes and accelerometers for roughly fifteen years.  I ran for US Congress as a Libertarian and was, as was expected, soundly defeated by the incumbent Democrat.  I was vice-chair of the California Libertarian Party for quite a few years.  I got my first US patent during that time, of which I now have roughly 20.  I did a lot of digital signal processing design, which was still pretty new.  Thus, that advanced communications systems course came in useful, too, along with even more control systems stuff but more and more digitally based.  After roughly four years together I broke up with my boyfriend.

In 1985 I was introduced to Ben, and we hit it off right away. By the end of the year I had moved in with him. We stayed together 33 years until his death in 2018 from congestive heart failure at the age of 70. In 2004 we were “married” along with around 4000 other couples in San Francisco city hall during the famous (notorious?) Valentine’s Day weekend same-sex wedding ceremonies that were arranged by then-mayor (now governor) Gavin Newsom. These marriages were annulled by the courts. In 2008 the California legislature passed the same-sex marriage act, and we were married (for real) less than one week before the Briggs initiative passed and revoked that law, but the 18,000 California same-sex marriages performed before the referendum passed were still valid. Eventually, the US Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in every state, overriding the Briggs initiative.

Rich Newell and Ben Chavez Christmas 1988

A lot of people were dying of AIDS, including several of our friends and tenants.  Nearly 50% of the gay men in our age group perished.  In 1992 we suffered a catastrophe when an apartment building we owned on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco was demolished due to a mudslide.  This was front-page news for many days.  Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall filmed “Dark Passages” in that building.

The apartment house catastrophe 1992

As part of the design of the accelerometers and gyroscopes I architected and led the design of a couple dozen integrated circuits, both analog and digital. In the verification process we used a new type of device, just invented, called a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) to emulate our custom digital circuits. FPGAs would dominate the rest of my professional life. For the next fifteen years I worked at a small company called Aptix where I was a hired gun rented out as a consultant to engineering companies that wanted to use FPGAs (resold by Aptix) to emulate their own custom integrated circuits. I traveled the world, and worked in short periods in probably 30 industrially-advanced countries from Japan to France. My longest stint was about six months in Erlangen Germany where I worked on the receiver chip for XM Radio (before the merger with Sirius). I worked on cordless phones (remember them?) in The Netherlands and at Bell Labs’ famous facility in New Jersey. I worked on numerous “3G” cell phone chips at several companies, and on HD radio at Lucent. I worked on a satellite-based router for almost six months at what was TRW in Southern California, commuting there every Monday and back to Northern California on Friday. I had a similar long-term gig commuting to Salt Lake City.

Aptix ended badly when the CEO was convicted of perjury (and other crimes) in a patent dispute and received a 13-year prison sentence.  The company promptly went bankrupt.  I was quite literally the last employee.  I shut down the email servers (since I also managed the IT department) and turned out the lights for the last time.  Then, I was unemployed for the first and only time in my life.

In 2007 I ended up at Actel, a company that makes FPGAs.  Actel was bought by Microsemi which was bought by Microchip Technology, where I still work in the FPGA business unit (now 15+ years) architecting the security features of our FPGAs.  Microchip has over 20,000 employees and is the third-largest supplier of microcontrollers worldwide, the third-largest supplier of FPGAs, and the number-one supplier of semiconductors to the US Department of Defense.  I transitioned from being a user of FPGAs to being a designer of them. My title is “Associate Technical Fellow.”  I am pretty well known in the small world of semiconductor security, and sometimes speak at technical conferences.

I was present at the start of the RISC-V Foundation (now RISC-V International) which is defining a new computer instruction set “to rule them all”.  Our latest FPGAs have multiple RISC-V CPUs in them and can perform more than a trillion floating-point operations per second.  I am chairman of the RISC-V Cryptographic Extensions Task Group.  I expect Microchip Technology will be my last professional job and expect to retire in a few years.

G. Richard Newell

P.S.: Yes, I think that is a pocket slide rule in my “candid photo” in the 1973 YouTube class photo carousel. 😊 My slide rule collection now has over 100 examples, some quite rare. About the only place you can get a new one is on a watch since nearly every other form of the slide rule vanished from production very suddenly around 1974 when the electronic calculator replaced it.

1973 West High “Candid photo”
Richard Newell, May 2023