Jun 4, 2014

Does Anyone Read Databooks?

Several times in my career, I had to answer customer calls – still do. Well, I take that back, I've always answered customer calls. But at several times I was the primary technical support engineer. On “the front lines” as we called it, we got all kinds of questions: “how many pins on your SO-8 package?” “do you make linears?” “what frequency do your garage doors operate at?” We also got questions on parts that were no longer available, obsolete years ago. This was before the internet. This was when the communal computer had a 5 ¼ inch floppy, 512kB of RAM and a 10MB hard drive which was useless for real-time customer calls. So we looked information up in databooks.

For anyone under about 35 years old, you may have never seen one. You can find old ones on e-bay, now. They were paperback; about 7” x 9” and some were well over 2” thick. Semiconductor companies gave them away, of course, because that was the only way you knew what products they offered. Big companies like National, T.I. and Motorola had so many product lines that their collection of databooks took up several linear feet of shelf space. Engineers had bookshelves full of them; some companies had librarians to manage them. Unlike the internet, it took so long to publish them that they were always out of date – there were new parts. So there was a steady flow of replacement books and many put the date on the spine so that you could see if yours was current or not. Some companies printed “new releases” databooks with only the new parts that were released since the previous book.

Databooks were a place to take notes, a method of organization, a source of education on the state of the art of electronics, an anticipated experience not unlike Christmas morning as a child. Engineers took notes in the margins of the pages. They dog-eared pages of parts they used frequently. They would sketch circuit ideas and spill coffee on the pages. Databooks spent time in the lab, in the cafeteria and who knows where else. Engineers would read databooks like a textbook, learning application tricks, learning about brand new types of integrated circuits. Until parts got too complicated, the entire circuit schematic of the chip was usually included. People had time to study them and figure out how the chips worked. Instead of looking for a function that you needed, people would scan the entire book to see what was new. New chips with new application circuits would create new product ideas. I always looked forward to getting a new databook.

As a self-described micro-historian, I enjoy the hunt for arcane information. I had some much worn books with yellowed pages containing just that one piece of information that some frustrated engineer would need the week between Christmas and New Years. For whatever reason, newer editions of a databook edited out certain sections or often certain parts. Usually I would find the oldest copies on the shelf of some old-timer who would grudgingly let me have the book (they did everything grudgingly). The normal protocol was to write your last name on the top edge of the book to prevent its theft. I had a great collection of names that were not mine.

But sometime around 1992, beta copies of Mosaic started popping up on SPARC workstations and people found akebono.stanford.edu and – fast-forward a couple decades – now I can get any data sheet I want on my phone. As nostalgic as I may be and despite the effort spent on my databook collection, things are so much better today. I have one old databook on my shelf for old times’ sake. It is a 1985 Linear Technology databook. The name on top is “RITTER” – Ed Ritter was the second marketing engineer at LTC, I believe. But I never look at it. I don’t keep hard copies of any data sheet. It’s just so much faster to find things online.

I also have a FEB 1973 Linear Applications Handbook from National Semiconductor that I bought on e-bay. It has application notes AN-1 through AN-75 and linear briefs LB-1 through LB-20 – although a lot of them are missing and a lot of them have no author identified. I believe as engineers left the company that they were edited out. The list of authors includes many of the characters I’ve mentioned in other posts: Dobkin, Frederiksen, Vender Kooi, Widlar and even Yamatake. One is an old boss of mine and I never knew he wrote any app notes.  And a few others will be mentioned in future posts, I’m sure.

I have a question for you. (Seriously, I want to know… send me an email or leave a comment.) What replaced databooks in your everyday life? Not the internet. No, not as a source of circuit specifications, but as a vehicle to deliver information you didn’t know you needed. How do you stumble across new circuit techniques? How do you learn what’s new? Or do you really “browse” with your “browser”? How do you organize your “feeds” and remember things that you may not need right at this moment? Was it fun to skim through a new databook and, if so, what replaced that as a source of fun? I assume that for legitimate projects that you have some sort of online repository, but what about future projects or toys for the home lab?

When I was a kid, my family had an encyclopedia set. As a young engineer, I had databooks. I read everything. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to read some emails.

1 comment:

  1. The obvious answer is we read blogs. ;)

    But I do still have a collection of databooks sitting in boxes out in the garage. Just in case, eh?