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Electronic Design

Jim Williams A Mover And Shaker Of All Things Analog

Today, newborns will often fall asleep to sounds from radios, TVs, CDs, DVDs, etc. But 51 years ago, sleep wasn't in the equation when five-year-old Jim Williams' dad brought home a short-wave radio. It was a "seminal event," as he describes it.


"I can see the Hallicrafters Model S-38 in my mind's eye now. We turned it on and for the life of me, I could not understand how all those voices from all over the world came out of that box," says Williams, designer of hundreds of fundamental analog circuits and prolific author on analog technology.


"I played with it a couple of nights. My dad, not at all a technologist, encouraged me to take the box apart," says Williams. "Mostly I just took it apart and made a mess of it. I never got it together again, yet that episode transfixed me. I did not wonder what I would do with the rest of my life. There was no question."


Williams became transfixed over electronic circuits, to the detriment of his schoolwork. "Instead of doing my homework, I read the HP catalog about their test equipment and electronic instrumentation," he says. At 13, he even applied for a job at HP, but it turned him down. "I spent my youth building and debugging circuits at home and working in TV shops," says Williams. The author of more than 250 articles on analog circuit design didn't know they were analog circuits. "To me they were just circuits," he says.


From 1958 to 1979, Williams set up shop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he concentrated exclusively on analog-circuit design, specifically the application of analog-circuit techniques to biochemical and biomedical problems. Work included ultra-stable temperature control for biochemical microcalorimetry, a precision scale for human metabolic studies, feedback control of fermentation processes, and instrumentation development for cell separation and counting.


At the same time, he acted as a consultant for U.S. and foreign governments and corporations about analog circuits. Assignments included analog-circuit development, design review and assistance, and application literature generation.


Williams joined National Semiconductor Corp. in 1979 and continued his assault on analog circuits as part of the Linear Integrated Circuits Group. During this period, he set about marrying analog and digital technologies, publishing a processor-corrected one-part-per-million accurate analog-to-digital converter.


Staff scientist at Linear Technology Corp. since 1982, Williams has concentrated on product definition, development, and support. He's responsible for in-house and customer support across Linear Technology's entire product range. Looking back, Williams sees the change in attitude about the value and necessity of analog circuits as his most significant impact on the engineering field.


"Go back 20 to 25 years, and the conventional wisdom was that analog techniques were fundamentally unnecessary," says Williams. "This was heralded by the advent of microprocessor-based techniques. It was thought that digital technology had rendered analog technology obsolete. Another group of people thought the digital revolution was real and significant, but they didn't believe its advent meant analog technologies were dead. Then and now, I'm a member of that group. I tried to demonstrate that analog technology would serve as a useful adjunct to digital techniques."


Then, Williams rather laughs at himself and adds, "Luckily for me, too, because I didn't have a choice. Analog technology is what I did and like to do, but I also had to sell it." And sell it he did. He wrote article after article, taking every advantage to demonstrate its value to the trade press. He explained how "very useful it was to support hardware," and he editorialized at every opportunity. Williams says that "there were a fair number of opportunities present to editorialize about the issue, and I made sure to take advantage of them."


What was the result of that? "It kept me employed," he laughs. Then he gets serious. "People took a second look and found there were things needed in systems and circuit boards that were fundamentally analog in nature."


Now, do people understand the need and value of both technologies? Yes, digital still gets the glitz and glamour in the headlines. But people now acknowledge that analog plays a needed supportive and enabling role. "No one is declaring analog technology dead anymore," he says.


More analog circuits are built today than at any other time. The digital revolution did analog a favor, notes Williams. Every digital box contains analog circuitry.


After a lifetime in the analog field, are there still challenges? Most definitely, according to Williams. "My goals are still pretty much the same. Find technical things to do that I think are interesting, that customers need and that Linear Technology wants done, and try to do it for them."


He's now working on problems relating to getting high-quality photographic capability into cell phones with particular lighting. "We're making xenon lighting usable in cell phones. Xenon 'flash' illumination is hundreds of times brighter than other light sources. The challenge is the space and cost issues with these high-powered circuits. You can get it to work, but the question is how to do it in a phone at an attractive price," says Williams.


Williams strives to bring improvements to the world outside the realm of analog circuits, too. "I support charitable groups through private, targeted donations. If I see something I don't like and can try to change it by supporting a group or cause, I go ahead and do it." He also supports various medical organizations and education at specific universities.

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