Nov 24, 2013

The 10k on Widlar

Bob Widlar arguably started the analog IC industry as we know it. Today, the majority of analog circuits trace their designs to circuits and techniques that he invented. His legendary character may outshine the body of his work. What seems to get little press is how hard he worked. Not only was he a genius, but he probably worked harder than anyone else.

How does one become a genius?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he considers how the “elite” got there. Certainly it takes innate talent, but it also takes a tremendous amount of work. K. Ander’s Ericsson conducted a study of elite musicians and couldn’t find any “naturals” who rose to the top without practicing, nor any “grinds” who worked harder than everyone else but lacked the talent. [1]

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” wrote David Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
Let’s count the 10,000 hours for Bob Widlar.

Bob Widlar was fortunate to be born in 1937, before World War II but on the tail end of the Great Depression. His father, Walter Widlar, was a self-taught radio engineer of German descent, a ham radio hobbyist and an engineer with Bird Electronics in Cleveland. Bob developed an interest in ham radio and all things electronic. Let’s say he would spend a few hours a week with his dad – who, by the way, designed pioneering ultra high frequency transmitters. [3] A few hours a week even before the age of 10, according to his brother, Jim; maybe that totals a few hundred hours. His dad also repaired appliances and by his teens, Bob had a television repair business after school. At the age of 15, he was billed in a local newspaper article as an "electronics designer and experimenter, who repaired radio and TV sets as a sideline." As a teenager, he also played radio pranks on the Cleveland police. [2] An obsessive consumer of technical information, Bob studied the manuals and gained a great understanding of vacuum tube circuits. It’s probably conservative to say, by age 18, that Bob had close to 1,000 hours of practice with circuits.

Walt died when Bob was just 15. Ray Bird, the owner of Bird Electronics and a family friend, helped out in many ways – including giving Bob a job. [4] I don’t know exactly how long he worked at Bird or what he did but it probably involved circuits. In 1958, Bob joined the Air Force at Fort Lawry in Colorado. He was in the 3424th Instructor Squadron. [5] Simultaneously, he attended the University of Colorado in Boulder (C.U.). While you might think the Air Force would not immerse Bob in electronics, remember that his was an Instructor Squadron. He passed the electronics exam without even taking any classes – a tribute to the self-study as a teenager and time spent with his dad. So they made him the instructor and he flunked everyone in the class. He felt the instruction manual was inadequate and was the reason that none of the students understood the basics. He wrote the Air Force’s six volume training manual in little over a year. Spending many hours in libraries, Bob had full access to the Bell Labs reports on semiconductor technology. He studied incredibly hard, but generally alone. While he rarely attended his classes at C.U., he nonetheless got perfect grades (except for one lone C in Colorado History). Knowing that Bob would devour books and would stay up for several days when engrossed in a topic, it’s easy to think that Bob by now had accumulated about 8,000 hours.

In 1961 he graduated and left the military, joining Ball Brothers Research Corporation (which later became Ball Aerospace). So, by 1962 he had most likely reached the 10,000 hour milestone – age 25.

But accumulating 10,000 hours and having immense talent is not enough, according to Gladwell. You have to achieve it before anyone else, check. Timing also plays a big part. Check. There could not have been a better point in time for the semiconductor industry. In 1957, eight scientists started a little semiconductor company called Fairchild. Also armed with technology originated at Bell Labs, Fairchild was quickly becoming the driving force in the nascent semiconductor industry. First they made transistors and Bob Widlar, as a customer, knew them inside and out. Bob was already a stand-out engineer at Ball Brothers when Jerry Sanders came to call (yes the founder of Advanced Micro Devices, but then a hot-shot salesman for Fairchild). So Sanders lured Widlar over to Fairchild.

Widlar was incredibly smart. He accumulated over 10,000 hours of circuit “practice” by the age of 25. He joined a start-up company full of brilliant engineers and scientists, experimenting freely on new technology. Even within this highly-charged environment, Widlar, with his cohort Dave Talbert, worked secretly on off-hours without management’s knowledge to create the first commercial operational amplifier. Again, rarely sleeping since he was so engrossed in the work. As the story goes, Fairchild introduced the µA702 even though Widlar didn’t think it was ready. It was very popular but it had aspects that made it difficult to work with. So Bob locked himself in a room for 170 hours and reappeared with the legendary 709 op amp as a result. [6] Widlar was known to have extremely meticulous lab books. These were still the days of slide rules, and his books showed the exhaustive math as he worked out the many problems. In addition to design, he became proficient in layout, fabrication, test and the writing of data sheets. Remember, the µA702 was introduced in October of 1964 – one year after he joined Fairchild. [7]  The amount of work done by Widlar and Talbert in that amount of time is unimaginable today.

He was more than a genius.


[1] “Outliers, the Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell, 2008

[2] Obituary from the University of Colorado,


[4] Communications with Jim Widlar


[6] “The man who designed everything”, Paul McGowan, iEyeNews, July 11, 2012

[7] "The History of Semiconductor Engineering", Bo Lojek, 2007

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