photograph Professor David Kinniment 1940-2012

The University announces with deep regret the death of Emeritus Professor David Kinniment on 13th May 2012.

Professor David Kinniment made remarkable contributions to the field of digital electronics over his nearly 50 year professional career.  He is best known for his work on metastability, starting with his pioneering work first published in 1972 that described the behaviour of synchronizer circuits in the MU-5 computers, and continuing through the design of numerous, novel synchronizer circuits, and developing laboratory technique for observing metastable circuit behaviours.  He also made significant contributions to the design of arithmetic and control logic, analog to digital converters, time-measurement circuits, and design automation for asynchronous logic circuits and systems. For all this, he was a modest man who did not seek accolades for his work and was very caring and patient with his staff and students. He was a family man who was a supportive and caring father and husband.

David was born on the 10th July 1940 in Edgware, Middlesex. A scholarship took him to Haberdasher Aske's  School where his school report in Mathematics stated surprisingly "he lacks the ability to present a neat and carefully stated argument" – though this is nothing on his PE assessment for which the schoolmaster merely coolly remarked "Lacks enthusiasm"! His sister Marguerite remembers he hated Games; he enjoyed rowing (at least you could sit) and rifle shooting (you can lie down!).

His time at Manchester University studying Electrical Engineering was preceded by working at Marconi's in Chelmsford for a year but he was bored by it and much preferred making electronic gadgets in his room – that is, when he wasn't bickering with his sister Marguerite (as she reports), though they always remained friends. David received the M.Sc. degree in electrical engineering in 1963 and the Ph.D. degree in computer science in 1968 from Manchester University, where he was involved in the design of the pioneering ATLAS and MU5 computers.

But student days in Manchester were important not only for David's future career. Rifle shooting came in useful, for it was at the Rifle Club that he met his future wife Anne while she was a student pharmacist. In 1962, when David was 21, they got married. Between 1964 and 1979 he progressed from Assistant Lecturer to Lecturer, and then Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at Manchester University. David and Anne lived first in Manchester, then Cheshire where their daughters Michelle and Sarah were born.

In 1979, he was appointed to the Chair of Electronics at Newcastle University and they moved to Morpeth in Northumberland initially, then 10 years later to the small village of Kirkwhelpington.
David loved the village and his home there, the stream running through the garden, the Garden Open Days, the Art Tour, being part of the village – and indeed, he put a lot of hours into creating the church website. He also found time  to enjoy his hobbies of walking and genealogy.

In his professional life, David became Head of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department at Newcastle from 1982 to 1990, and resumed the role from 1996 to 1998. His arrival in 1979 marked the beginning of a new era in electronic design at Newcastle that was the era of very large scale integration, design automation and David’s remarkable vision that the future of education in electronics must be strongly linked with computing. As Brian Randell recalls, David and Harry Whitfield, then head of the Computing Laboratory at Newcastle, pioneered the degree of microelectronics and software engineering - apparently the contents of this degree was thrashed out by them during a train journey from London.

David respected computer science highly while Harry loved electronics – what could have worked better! Harry himself looks back on their time working together with great affection. The fruits from that genuine collaboration were imminent – many engineers who graduated from that degree would become successful engineers and CTOs in Silicon Valley and other parts of the world …

On David's retirement in 1998 he became an Emeritus Professor, continuing his work with the microelectronics group in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle until he became seriously ill in 2010.

David was an active member of the international research community, serving on the Technical Program Committee of the ASYNC symposia in the period of 2000-2010, co-chairing in 2003.  In his research work, he was concerned, amongst other things, with the measurement and characterization of synchronization and arbitration in digital systems since 1970. The problem of metastability was known in the 60’s but not well understood. The first paper to describe the impact of metastability on computer systems, and how to measure the mean time between failures was published by David Kinniment in 1972 and the measurement method he described remains the industry standard way of characterizing failure rates in synchronizers. In a collaborative project with INTEL, he developed innovative methods complemented by careful statistical analysis that have enabled previously hypothesized metastability phenomena to be observed in the laboratory.  This work has inspired much of the recent research in synchronizer design including the development of the analysis techniques used to design the novel synchronizer that won the best paper award at the ASYNC 2011 conference.

David’s modesty was remarkable and that’s what characterised him, with his unassuming and often dry attitude to his discoveries and clever engineering solutions. That modesty did not hinder the passion and almost childlike enthusiasm in having technical discussions about research as Steve Nowick, from Columbia University in New York, recalls.  His personal qualities are summed up by memories from some of his Newcastle’s colleagues.

Gordon Russell recalls: “One of Dave’s many outstanding attributes was the wealth of knowledge he had on a wide range of topics and the intensity with which he would converse on them; however this could be problematic at times when dining out when he would be oblivious to the fact that all the vegetable dishes were stacking up at his opposite side and not being passed along!”

Anthony O’Neill says: “David was an inspirational character to me. I feel David was also a friend and we enjoyed many a good natured intellectual scuffle over the years.” 

Oliver Hinton, who replaced David as Head of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department at Newcastle in 1998, also paid tribute to how professional and supportive David was as a colleague and team leader.

Graeme Chester says: "David appointed me to my first academic post and I will always be grateful to him for the encouragement he gave me. I remember well the lunch breaks when we engaged in spirited discussion on so many topics. "

David's close friend,  colleague and research collaborator Alex Yakovlev recalls discussions about etymology of names and places around the world, about family trees … such as David's  Scottish ancestor who served on behalf of the Swedish King Carl the Twelfth and fought against Peter the Great.

Many people from various parts of the world, responded to the sad news of David’s passing with their warm words of sympathy and heartfelt memories. They spoke about his wonderful qualities of a true scholar, modest and kind person, brilliant scientist and engineer, hard worker, someone who was highly professional and yet passionate in sharing his knowledge with us, one of the Good Guys, horoshyi byl muzhik (by the sound of it, this message came from Russia!), leadership and camaraderie, a really important member of the international research community in his subject area, a role model for all academics. 

David’s research on synchronization and arbitration work has now been published in the only comprehensive book on the subject and in a number of invited keynote addresses and tutorials. He has also written a book which opens up the field to a lay audience, “He Who Hesitates is Lost: Decisions and free will in men and machines”, available online at  .

His extraordinary contributions to designing reliable synchronizers and arbiters, and understanding metastability have shaped several generations of graduate students at Newcastle University as well as influencing researchers in the electronic design and test community from all over the world.  He will be fondly remembered by all who knew him.

Published: 9th July 2012