clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meet John Hennessy and Dave Patterson, Silicon Valley’s first disruptors

“These were dangerous ideas that were going to destroy the computing industry.”

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Turing Award winners Dave Patterson and John Hennessy
Turing Award winners Dave Patterson and John Hennessy
Weinberg-Clark Photography / Association for Computing Machinery; Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Dave Patterson and John Hennessy were told that their idea was “going to destroy the computing industry.”

The warning was right. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the industry was dominated on the hardware side by two companies: IBM and DEC. Patterson and Hennessy’s development of RISC, a more efficient computer processor found today in billions of devices, completely upended the established order.

In June, the two engineers will formally accept a Turing Award, the computer science equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in recognition of their work. Hennessy later became president of Stanford University and is now the chair of Alphabet; Patterson is a professor emeritus at U.C. Berkeley and a distinguished engineer at Google. On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, they talked about how they overcame resistance from their peers and made RISC a reality.

“It was everything from, ‘You guys are crazy, you’re just academics, you don’t know what you’re doing,’ to, ‘If you start a company and develop this technology, you’re gonna undermine the large computer companies,’” Hennessy recalled. “One of the reasons in the end that the technology was not adopted quickly was that it did pose a real threat to their existing product line.”

This fear of disruption is still common to big companies today, Hennessy noted, arguing that it’s better to “shoot yourself in the foot rather than have somebody else shoot you in the gut.” Although Patterson and Hennessy initially developed RISC as an academic project at rival schools, Berkeley and Stanford, they were on the “same side” against the larger, slower computers being produced by IBM and DEC, Patterson said.

“Digital Equipment Corp actually had a West Coast lab at that point,” Hennessy explained. “Some of those people had worked on our project and picked up the ideas, but they couldn’t get the East Coast guys to accept it. So in the end, Gordon Bell, one of the early guys at DEC, came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to start a company, because otherwise these ideas are not going to get out there.’”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Patterson explained in layman’s terms what made RISC so special.

“When software talks to hardware, there’s a vocabulary,” he said. “The prevailing wisdom was that you wanted these very rich vocabularies: Five-dollar words, polysyllabic words. John and my idea was, in this fast-changing microprocessor, let’s do the opposite. Let’s have a very small, very simple vocabulary, monosyllabic words.”

“If you think of it as reading words — ‘How fast could computers read those words?’ — they have to read more words if they’re simple,” Patterson added. “But how many more words would they have to read, and how fast could you read them? It turned out that RISC — we had to read 20 percent more words, but we could read them four times faster.”

That huge leap in efficiency didn’t matter as much in the era of desktop computers, but mobile devices and the Internet of Things changed everything.

“All of a sudden, you cared both about what the processor cost, but you also cared about energy efficiency,” Hennessy said. “The traditional approach consumed more energy. In the mobile space, power is everything; you really do have to worry about energy.”

“This year, there will be 20 billion microprocessors sold,” Patterson added. “And 99 percent of those will be RISC.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.