Lee Boysel: In Memoriam (12/31/1938 – 4/25/2021)

Boysel (BSE MSE EE 1962 1963), founder, president and CEO of Four-Phase Systems, Inc., helped change the course of microprocessing with his company's invention of the AL1 microprocessor in 1969. He received the COE Alumni Merit Award for ECE in 2007.
Lee Boysel Enlarge
Lee Boysel

Lee Loren Boysel (known as “Buff” by family and friends) passed away on April 25, 2021 in San Francisco, CA. Those who met this quirky, unassuming man later in his life might not have guessed that he pioneered the design and development of a computer component that became one of the fundamental backbones to modern computing and that he built a successful worldwide public company based on that technology. His vast accomplishments are the result of his enduring curiosity and intellect, qualities that shaped his life and relationship to the world around him.

Buff was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 31, 1938. He spent several years of his childhood living in Europe after World War II where his father was working on behalf of the Ford Motor Company to help rebuild the automotive industry. After returning to the United States, he attended Howe Military Academy through high school and graduated from there in 1957 with distinguished honors. Buff attended the University of Michigan from 1957-1962 where he earned Bachelor and Masters of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering. He enjoyed a spirited social life while at U of M and was a fixture at the perpetual bridge table of the Sigma Chi fraternity, making lifelong friends in the process. As an engineer at the University of Michigan, Buff learned to think independently and outside the box, beyond traditional paradigms and boundaries- -a gift that shaped his life.

After graduating from the University of Michigan Buff married Sharon Anderson and they had two children together (Brad and Casey).

Most people who knew Buff well had awareness of his remarkable career:

  • As a young engineer in the 60s, Buff was an integral part of a community of engineers working on developing state of the art integrated circuitry – technology preceding the general construct of what is now known as the microprocessor. Buff spent his early professional years at IBM, McDonnell Aerospace, and Fairchild Semiconductor publishing research, collaborating with other engineers, and working independently to rapidly advance this technology.
  • At age 32, Buff transitioned from engineer to CEO, by using his expertise to start his own company, Four Phase Systems, in his garage where he pioneered further progress on this fundamental and vanguard technology (described in more detail on his Wikipedia page). By the time Buff sold Four Phase to Motorola in 1982, it had grown to a major corporation with as many as 5000 employees and revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Buff’s accomplishments have been widely recognized. He has been invited to speak at the University of Michigan and was presented with the Alumni Society Merit Award in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2007. He is also recognized in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. His early AL-1 microprocessor is on display there as a testament to his amazing achievements in the early days of the Silicon Valley computing revolution.

Buff not only developed and commercialized this technology but also wanted to ensure it belonged to the engineering community, the future of technology, and ultimately the people. Buff never patented his advancements. In fact, when Buff established Four Phase, based primarily on a small but powerful central processing unit (or CPU) he called the AL-1 that he developed on his own, Buff did not patent it. Instead, he published an article in the April 1970 issue of Computer Design Magazine describing it in detail. Many years later, Texas Instruments attempted to lay claim to this technology and collect billions of dollars in royalties, but Buff spent many years as an expert witness proving that the technology was in fact his prior art, and it belonged in public domain. Those interested in reading more about his efforts to support this lawsuit – including building and demonstrating a working model that proved the technology was his – can read this publication from the University of Michigan Engineering school.

These years of ensuring that this technology remained in the hands of, in his words, “John Q Public,” were what Buff was proudest of and what he reminisced about the most.

Buff’s personal and family life was active. He enjoyed visiting with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. He loved skiing (always in Vail) as well as an evening cocktail or two. He travelled later in life until he could no longer do so, including to Mexico, the Mediterranean, New Zealand, across Asia, and Costa Rica. He enjoyed walking from his condominium to nearby North Beach for the fine food, especially Cafe Zoetrope, where he had a regular booth. He is survived by his daughter (Casey), son and daughterin-law (Brad and Linda), grandson (Brandon), his partner of 21 years (Anne Rosewarne), and former wife (Sharon).

Because he was handsome and dressed beautifully, it was easy to forget he was a nerd, but he was. He liked to explain the intricacies of, say, the electrical system in a vacation rental until his friends’ and family’s eyes glazed over. He was quirky, and liked everything, especially his home, just so, but he did not mind being teased about it. When he travelled or ventured out, and things got messy–as when an angry monkey chased him around the veranda of a house in Costa Rica–he laughed at himself (but locked his windows obsessively at night). Despite being dyslexic, by dint of hard work he became a reader, and his bookshelf contained books on astrophysics, genetic mutations, medicine, and politics, plus his childhood classics. Despite all his technological intellect, he was more interested in discussing topics of others’ expertise, probably because of his bottomless curiosity. He was also unfailingly progressive and kind, as well as a great champion of women’s rights.

With noble intentions, Buff emphasized the importance of contributing to society as a whole. Humble in these workings, it was never about acknowledgement or praise. Buff preferred to do his work for the good of humanity behind the scenes.

Found in his wallet that he carried with him every day, was a small scrap of old paper type written with the following Stephen Grellet quote: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Further evidence and testament to the man he really was.

He will be missed.

For additional information about Lee Boysel, please read:

Lee Boysel: the early history of microprocessing (includes Boysel’s talk “Making your first million and other tips for aspiring entrepreneurs”)