Feb 23, 2014

Guru #1, Bob Widlar

In my arbitrary counting system, I’ve tagged Bob Widlar as guru #1. Of the five people in the advertisement, his life is probably the best documented. I recommend two excellent sources: Bo Lojek’s “History of Semiconductor Engineering” who devotes an entire chapter to Bob Widlar’s life, and Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page is quickly digestible (and free) and offers a reasonably technical discussion of Widlar’s early works. And the Wikipedia page references Lojek’s book (not free) extensively.



I won’t attempt to write a better story than either of those two sources. Instead, I will offer my reaction to both of them and put a little spin (or anti-spin, as it were) on them.

“History of Semiconductor Engineering”, Chapter 8: Robert J. Widlar – The Genius, The Legend, The Bohemian. Lojek says, “Bob was a fiercely independent individual, very happy to be by himself, and he did everything in a stunning way, which was absolutely natural to him, but completely weird to so-called “normal people.” I completely agree with that! He also said, “…the personality of Bob Widlar is a clear manifestation of unhealthy changes which occurs in our society.” By that, I believe he meant that today’s “political correctness” stifles what engineers say, do and how they pursue their ideas; and therefore, we won’t see someone like Bob Widlar again. I don’t completely agree with that – partially, but not completely. Then again, I never met Widlar. But I look around and I see a lot of character, a lot of people being true to who they are and an acceptance of eccentricity. And I think that Widlar deserves a great deal of credit for that acceptance surviving till today. Simply because he existed and accomplished what he did in the manner that he did, we integrate that into what is acceptable – at least in analog.

Wikipedia concisely covers Widlar’s childhood, education, stint in the Air Force, work at Ball Brothers, segue to Fairchild and then National and Linear Technology where his face appeared on this ad. I gave my own version of these events in my post attempting to account for 10,000 hours. Wikipedia doesn’t clarify how Widlar got his degree in the same three years that he served in the Air Force – and at the same time he wrote the textbooks for the Air Force’s instruction in semiconductors (when no suitable text existed). Wikipedia discusses the µA702 and µA709. But you don’t get a mental picture of Widlar and Talbert working nights and weekends to make the process and product concurrently, without management approval – they had other jobs. The µA702 was introduced a year after Widlar joined Fairchild – probably only a few months after management found out about it. Widlar locked himself away for 170 hours and came out with the µA709 – that’s a week (without much sleep).

On a technicality, Wikipedia makes mention of a patent dispute between Widlar and Linear Technology regarding parts LT1 through LT20. Those are not correct part numbers. In Lojek’s book, the part numbers are LT1-10, -15, -16, -17, -18 and 20. I suspect those are simple typographic errors. I know Widlar designed the LT1010. So it’s possible that LT1015, LT1016, LT1017, LT1018 and LT1020 were also his designs – I’ll check on that.

My real issue with the Wikipedia page is the personality section. The image of him as a heavy drinker seems to grow with time while the image of him as a hard-working, brilliant, prodigious engineer fades as time goes on. And that has to do with context, in my opinion. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the semiconductor industry was the “wild west.” The local watering holes (Walker’s Wagon Wheel, Marchetti’s, etc.) were packed – during lunch and all night. They were crazy times. True, even in those days Widlar stood out. But against the backdrop of today’s sensibilities, Widlar looks even wilder. His hard-working side, his genius, his many contributions fade against the backdrop of technology today. We are spoiled by the accumulated knowledge of circuits at our fingertips. It’s impossible for us to imagine a time before the bandgap reference, before matched transistor pairs and temperature compensation. Widlar worked with a slide rule. He studied the process and drove the process with Dave Talbert to create what was necessary and he invented the rest out of sheer genius.

Accepting that, I’m astonished by the amazing speed with which it all happened. Remember, Widlar worked in the applications group – not R&D or circuit design. Talbert was a process engineer for the microLogic group. They did everything after hours! Widlar joined Fairchild in 1963, released the µA702 in 1964 and µA709 in 1965. Along with “inventing the IC op amp”, he laid the blueprint for how all analog ICs data sheets are written. He wrote his own applications section. He traveled the world giving seminars – he gave a seminar in Madison Square Garden and packed the house! By the end of 1965 he left Fairchild and went to Molectro. His mere presence there was enough to convince National Semiconductor to abandon their east coast roots and build a company around it. In 1966 Widlar made the LM100 and, in 1967, the still legendary LM101. A career’s worth of products in consecutive years, bang, bang, bang. Amazing.

So forgive my soap-box speech, but I think Wikipedia needs to be changed. I’d like to see our community come up with better language than “…lived the life of an alcoholic loner.” Wikipedia can be changed. Yes, he drank (a lot) and preferred to be alone. But I can’t reconcile the image of an alcoholic loner with the technical accomplishments of Bob Widlar, with the obsessive amount of work he poured into every circuit, with the charm and humor or with the business savvy. Sorry, had to put that out there.

Think about the next analog circuit you work with. So much of that circuit exists because of Bob Widlar.

Guru #1.
Bob Widlar, center, at National Semiconductor in 1967

3 comments:

  1. Todd, Thanks publishing Analog Footsteps.

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