Carnegie Mellon University

Hamerschlag Hall

November 16, 2021

An Electrifying Legacy

By Krista Burns

Every so often, a professor comes along who has a profound impact on an institution. If you were to ask anyone in the electrical and computer engineering department about Don Thomas, they would first smile, then proceed to tell you just how outstanding of a person he was. Don passed away on March 20, 2020 at the age of 68. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will celebrate his life and accomplishments on November 20, 2021.

Don was a lifelong Tartan. After earning his Ph.D. in computer engineering in 1977, Don continued his Carnegie Mellon journey in various teaching and professor roles in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) until he retired in 2016. His multi-decade legacy was far-reaching and continues to shape the department today.

“Don created a digital circuit design course that was unique to Carnegie Mellon, but is still relevant and highly valued,” says Larry Pileggi, department head and Tanoto Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Most recently it was the first course chosen for sharing with other universities as part of an industry-funded initiative to establish more curriculum for integrated circuits and electronics in the United States.”

Known to students as 18-341, the digital circuit design course attracts about 25% of the undergraduate ECE student population. It has become so well-known that corporate companies identified the course as a significant indication of success in those Carnegie Mellon graduates that it hired.

A published author many times over, Don’s technical journal papers and textbooks have had a profound influence in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon and other institutions. They have had significant sales in Australia, Europe, and Russia, and his most recent textbook has been translated into Russian.

"Don's Verilog textbooks continue to be used in our required course on digital design, and for years computer science students were also required to take the course,” says Shawn Blanton, associate department head for research and the Joseph F. and Nancy Keithley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This means his work in this area has impacted thousands of graduates, and will continue to do so here at CMU and the many other institutions that have adopted his textbooks.”

It is estimated that Don positively influenced every electrical and computer engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University since the late 1970s.

“His textbooks have reached thousands outside of CMU as well,” says Bill Nace, teaching professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Through his course, which is being transferred and will be taught at four historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), he will impact many students outside of CMU.”

Creativity and humor were common teaching tactics that Don used in the classroom. He was known for taking complex engineering problems and breaking them down into segments that students could understand and apply.

“He had a great sense of humor,” says Nace. “He loved to find a joke that he could fit into a lecture and loved to make others laugh.”

Don’s commitment to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was undeniable. Whether it was assuming the interim department head role from 1991-1993, or agreeing to direct the Center for Silicon System Implementation from 1998-2000, he was the first to step into a leadership role when needed.

“Don was a member of the first Semiconductor Research Corporation funded center in the country that was awarded to CMU in 1982,” says Pileggi. “This was pivotal for the ECE department to become a world leader in electronic design automation for over 25 years.”

A dedicated colleague, mentor, and friend, Don Thomas’ legacy will live on in the faculty and students who worked with him.

“He has a great legacy,” says Nace. “Most professors live on in the ideas and education we pass to our students — graduate students we advise closely or those students who take our courses. Don lives on in the lives of those who have read his textbooks and those who have taken (or taught) his courses. He will be affecting the course of the future in a billion small ways for a very long time.”