Nov 28, 2013

Bob Widlar and the Sheep at National

I started out to write the obligatory sheep story because what blog on analog would be complete without it. There are several versions online. Several start out by correcting the New York Times obituary version which claimed it was a goat. But there are other discrepancies: Did he act alone? Was the sheep stolen or purchased? Was it a prank or a protest against the unkempt landscaping? What happened to the sheep? So here is what I believe to be the definitive Sheep Story with a few bonus stories. But first, a few steps backward.

Bob Widlar started working at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1963. He left Fairchild in 1967 to join Molectro which was quickly acquired by National Semiconductor in 1967. The story happened in late 1970 at National. There was no love lost between Widlar and his vice president, Pierre Lamond. Why? A few reasons. Generally speaking, Widlar was difficult to manage (a tremendous understatement, really) and especially so when he felt his boss knew less than he did. Pierre had ascended rapidly – perhaps too rapidly and earned a bit of the disdain from Widlar.

Lamond was born in France and joined Transitron in 1957. The owners, the Bakalars, put him on the production line. In his third week, he was promoted to the head of production to replace his departing boss, and, in a few more months, he was promoted to device development engineer. He returned to France as his one-year working visa expired, and then by 1959 he was back at Transitron as the head of development. Lamond's second stint at Transitron was a short one. In 1961, Lamond joined Fairchild, working for Gordon Moore. After the loss of Lamond's direct supervisor, he was again promoted to manage device development. In 1967, he was one of four key operations people along with Charlie Sporck, to leave Fairchild and restart National Semiconductor.

As a quick aside, Lamond had previously assembled a team of Fairchild managers in preparation to defect to Plessey. When negotiations with Plessey broke down, Lamond and Sporck followed up on Widlar's and Talbert's suggestion to consider National Semiconductor. Ironic, eh?

By 1970, Widlar had been increasingly playing pranks on Lamond. Widlar’s office was near Lamond’s and there was an intercom speaker in the ceiling right between them. The paging bothered Widlar so he had his brother, Jim who worked in facilities, to disconnect it. Lamond had it reconnected. This escalated until Widlar installed a bomb (M-80 or cherry bomb) in the speaker! Lamond saw him on a chair in the hallway. “What are you doing, Bob?”asked Lamond. Widlar replied, “I am going to blow out these damn speakers.” Lamond replied, “Oh,” and turned and walked back out the door. Widlar lit off the fuse and hopped down.

According to Bob Pease, Widlar really was almost always a soft-spoken person. He didn’t have to yell or shout to get his message across. Lamond, not so much. Widlar created a “hassler” circuit for his office. When a person spoke loudly in Widlar’s office, this circuit would detect the audio and convert it to a very high audio frequency. So if you really hollered, it would make sort of a ringing in your ears.

Lamond was a stickler for being on time. Widlar, not so much. So Widlar came up with a circuit that would steal cycles from the 60Hz wall socket for Lamond’s clock, making it lose a few minutes every day. Again, his brother Jim did the deed, cobbling the circuit into the socket. Lamond bought three new clocks before they tipped him off to the prank.

Widlar would also generate prank purchase orders (PO) to see what would get through the system. Widlar put in a PO for a bale of hay, 20ft of rope, a tire & 20lbs of bananas as a prank (and I think there was something about a monkey also). A few days later he came in to work and found the items and was told the bananas (or the monkey) were on backorder. A fitting segue to the story of the sheep.

In 1970 the semiconductor market was in a bit of a slump. Charlie Sporck was the CEO of National Semiconductor and a great operations man, so he decided to curtail landscaping for a while at the Santa Clara facility. Presumably, Lamond was implicated by Widlar for this as well. December in Northern California means the days are cooler and the rains start to return. So the grass grew tall. Widlar saw this as another opportunity for a prank. (I doubt he cared about the unkempt look of the facilities, especially since Bob had supposedly parked on the grass in the past.)

One morning Widlar and Bob Dobkin drove down to Morgan Hill. His friend, John Weiss had a neighbor, Emmett Slaughter, who owned some sheep. Dobkin says they paid $60 for a sheep; Jim Widlar says they borrowed it. Widlar had a Mercedes-Benz 280 SL convertible with a hardtop. There was a little gap behind the seats, so they wrapped the sheep in a blue tarp and tucked her snuggly in the gap so she couldn’t move.
[Image is not Widlar’s car, but you can see a sheep-sized gap behind the seats.]  You can see Widlar's car in the background in one of the photos below.

They tied the sheep up to a tree in front of National’s headquarters and about 20 minutes later a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News showed up to took photos. Dobkin swears that neither he nor Widlar called the newspaper. It must have been someone else. Contrary to Sporck’s version of the story, Pierre Lamond did not coax the sheep back into Widlar’s car. Widlar and Dobkin collected it at the end of the day. They took it to a local restaurant, By-th-Bucket, and left it with the owner (Mike Garcia). Dobkin says that no one from management really had much of a reaction until the story appeared in the Mercury News. Once they saw it in the paper they were furious – and they started having the lawns mowed again.

This was December 12, 1970. Bob Widlar retired from National Semiconductor on December 21, 1970.


Photo credit for color photos, Fran Hoffart.

Many details from conversations with Jim Widlar.

Many details from conversations with Bob Dobkin.

“What’s All This Widlar Stuff, Anyhow?”, Bob Pease – EDN, first published in the July 25, 1991 issue

“They Would Be Gods”, (, Upside, October 2001

SIDEBAR (why I believe the By-th-Bucket version over the Marchetti’s version): By-Th'-Bucket is still around, but it was called “Buy th’ Bucket then. In those days it was literally a hole-in-the-wall establishment. It was made of cinder block and you collected your food from a glowing window that was, in essence, the only light in the place. You had a choice of wooden picnic tables topped with bowls of salted peanuts or – if you couldn't find a seat – the hood of your car would become your table. Mike Garcia, the original owner, would put large olives in the bottom of your beer, patrons would eat peanuts and throw the shells right onto the floor, which would be there nearly a week later. [source: ] No one would worry about the presence of a sheep – it was probably welcome. Or perhaps it ended up on the menu. No one’s talking.

Per Wikipedia: The San Jose Mercury was founded in 1851 as the San Jose Weekly Visitor, while the San Jose News was founded in 1883. In 1942, the Mercury purchased the News and continued publishing both newspapers, with the Mercury as the morning paper and the News as the evening paper. The story ran in the afternoon paper. Full text, below:

*** San Jose News Sat., Dec. 12, 1970 page 3

Economy Mowing

This is not Mary’s little lamb grown up and following her to work. It is a lawnmower. Bob Widlar, director of advanced circuit development, “borrowed” the sheep for the front lawn of National Semiconductor in Santa Clara to help the firm’s austerity program by cutting mowing expenses. Widlar admitted it is “putting a lot of gardeners out of work,” but notes “at the same time the grass gets cut, it gets fertilized, too.”

1 comment:

  1. I recall that Emmett Slaughter was paid the $60 after the sheep became a celebrity and wasn't returned.

    When there were no parking places Brother Bob would park his 230SL on the lawn at 2950 San Ysidro Way (Building 3).The landscapers would spot the convertible and turn on the irrigation system..