Sophie Wilson, the inventor of the ARM and Firepath processors, has been nominated for a lifetime achievement award by the EPO

ARM and Firepath chip inventor nominated for award

The inventor of the ARM and Firepath processors has been nominated for a lifetime achievement award.

Sophie Wilson is one of three scientists based in the UK to be nominated for the European Inventor Award 2013, presented annually by the European Patent Office (EPO) to outstanding inventors in five categories, for her contributions to technological, social and economic progress.

In an engineering and commercial career spanning 35 years – including being named as inventor or co-inventor on over 50 patents – Wilson’s greatest legacy is her development of the original ARM processor, an extremely energy-efficient chip whose descendants today power most of the world’s mobile devices.

The chip lead to accumulated sales and licensing fees of more than $30bn and Wilson also invented the FirePath processor, which is integrated in broadband hardware and set-top boxes all over the world

“Not every technology genius has the profile of Alan Turing or Sir Clive Sinclair. But Sophie Wilson’s contributions to the development of computers and the creation of the ARM processor merit that comparison,” said EPO president Benoît Battistelli at the announcement of the nominations.

Wilson's career started in March 1979 when she joined Acorn Computers to develop the first affordable personal computer, the BBC Micro, which, by the end of its lifecycle in 1989, had sold more than one million times instead of the targeted 12,000.

But Wilson's major contribution came in 1983 when she teamed up with Steve Furber to design the first 32-bit RISC Machine chip for Acorn (ARM), a chip that operated with significantly fewer instructions and transistors than equivalent chips produced by Intel at the time.

Apart from having better performance thanks to their load/store architecture, these new chips consumed far less energy – two indispensable attributes in today's mobile computing devices.

After the dissolution of Acorn Computers in 1999, Wilson continued her work in a company she co-founded, Element 14, to develop the FirePath processor that powers today's broadband DSL infrastructure.

The company was sold to Broadcom for $450m in 2001, a price tag secured by the strong patent portfolio of Element 14.

“In the actual business environment of IT and hardware, patents are decisive to ensure your long-term success. You have to be aware of the chances and understand to invest time and resources to establish and update your patent portfolio,” said Wilson.

About seven billion ARM cores are sold every year, and with Microsoft's new ARM-based Windows RT (found in tablets), the latest ARM processors are already in about a quarter of all tablets and PCs, and the vast majority of smartphones.

Wilson's contribution to the mobile economy has also been recognised through an appointment as a Broadcom Distinguished Engineer, as a 2012 Fellow of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, and in the UK as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Two other UK inventors are in line for awards as well, with University of Edinburgh scientist Philipp Koehn nominated for his advanced computer translation of languages in the research category and Scottish engineer David Gow nominated in the SME category for the prosthetic i-limb hand, which provides unprecedented precision and control.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony in Amsterdam on 28 May in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands.

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