Nathanson grew up the son of a pharmacist in Pittsburgh and went on to be a pioeer of solid-state electronics working for Westinghouse research labs in the same city.
As a child in the 1950s Nathanson taught himself about analog electronics by building hi-fi mail-order kits. Such was his interest he declined the opportunity to take over his father's pharmacy business in favour of attending Carnegie Technical institute which became Carnegie-Mellon University.
Nathanson earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie and joined Westinghouse Electric where in 1965 he is credited with conceiving the first MEMS device. It would be a microscopic mechanical tuner for microelectronic solid-state radios. It was developed with Robert Wickstrom and William Newell and patented as a Microelectric Frequency Selective Apparatus. A refined version of the device was subsequently patented as the Resonant Gate Transistor, often referred to as the first MEMS device to be made.
MEMS could be made using conventional semiconductor manufacturing processes but they were relatively slow to find practical applications and were still something of a curiosity in the 1980s when being offered by Motorola for some industrial sensing applications.
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