Biography of Mark Dean, Computer Pioneer

The American engineer who revolutionized the personal computer

An IBM computer display
IBM personal computer display, circa 1981 (Photo credit: Sal Dimarco Jr./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images).

Mark Dean (born March 2, 1957) is an American inventor and computer engineer. He was part of the team that developed some of the key components to early computers in the 1980s. Dean holds three of the nine patents related to IBM’s personal computers, and his work forms part of the foundation of modern computing.

Fast Facts: Mark Dean

  • Occupation: Computer engineer
  • Known For: Co-inventor of the personal computer
  • Born: March 2, 1957 in Jefferson City, Tennessee
  • Education: University of Tennessee, Florida Atlantic University, Stanford University
  • Selected Honors: IBM Fellow, Black Engineer of the Year President's Award, National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee

Early Life

Dean was born in Jefferson City, Tennessee. He reportedly had an interest in science and a love for technology from a young age. His father was a supervisor at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the utility company founded during the Great Depression to help modernize and provide for the region. As a boy, Dean's early building projects included building a tractor from scratch, with his father’s assistance, and his excellence at math caught the attention of teachers even when he was in elementary school.

An excellent student as well as a student athlete, Dean did well throughout his schooling at Tennessee Valley High School. After high school, he went on to the University of Tennessee, where he majored in engineering and graduated at the top of his class in 1979. After college, Dean began looking for a job, eventually landing at IBM—a choice that would change his life and the entire computer science field.

Career at IBM

For the majority of his career, Dean was associated with IBM, where he pushed computer science and technology into a new era. Early in his career, Dean proved to be a real asset to the company, rising quickly and gaining the respect of more seasoned peers. His talent led him to work with another engineer, Dennis Moeller, to create a new piece of technology. The Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus was a new system that allowed peripheral devices such as disk drives, monitors, printers, modems, and more to be plugged directly into computers, for better-integrated and easier-to-use computing.

Even while at IBM, Dean did not stop his education. Almost immediately, he returned to school at Florida Atlantic University to get his master’s degree in electrical engineering; the degree was conferred in 1982. In 1992, he also received a PhD in electrical engineering, this time from Stanford University. His ongoing education contributed to his ability to innovate in a time when computer science was developing and expanding rapidly.

Over time, Dean's work began to focus on improving the personal computer. He helped develop a color monitor for the PC, as well as other improvements. The IBM personal computer, released in 1981, began with nine patents for its technology, three of which belong specifically to Mark. In 1996, Dean's work was rewarded at IBM when he was made an IBM Fellow (the highest honor for excellence at the company). This achievement was more than just personal for Dean: he was the first African-American to be awarded with this honor. Only a year later, in 1997, Dean received two more major recognitions: the Black Engineer of the Year President's Award and an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Landmark Accomplishment

Dean led a team that developed a huge breakthrough at IBM and for the computer world as a whole. With a team based out of IBM’s Austin, Texas, laboratory, Dean and his engineers created the first one gigahertz computer processor chip in 1999. The revolutionary chip, tasked with carrying out the calculations and basic processes of a computer, was capable of doing one billion calculations per second. With this new technology, the computer world took a giant leap forward.

Over the course of his career, Dean had more than 20 patents registered for his innovation computer engineering work. He later climbed up the ranks at IBM as a Vice President overseeing the company’s San Jose, California, Almaden Research Center, as well as the chief technology officer for IBM Middle East and Africa. In 2001, he became a member of the National Academy of Engineers.

Present-Day Career

Mark Dean is the John Fisher Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee. In 2018, he was named the interim dean of the university’s Tickle College of Engineering.

Dean also made headlines back in 2011 when he about the declining popularity of the personal computer, very device he helped make commonplace. He even admitted that he had switched to primarily using a tablet. In the same essay, Dean reminded readers of the humanity that must underscore all technology usage:

“These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people’s lives.”

Sources

  • Brown, Alan S. "Mark E. Dean: From PCs to Gigahertz Chips.” The Best of Tau Beta Pi (Spring 2015), https://www.tbp.org/pubs/Features/Sp15Bell.pdf.
  • Dean, Mark. “IBM Leads the Way in the Post-PC Era.” Building A Smarter Planet, 10 August 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110813005941/http://asmarterplanet.com/blog/2011/08/ibm-leads-the-way-in-the-post-pc-era.html.
  • “Mark Dean: Computer Programmer, Inventor.“ Biography, https://www.biography.com/people/mark-dean-604036