What’s All This Widlar Stuff, Anyhow?

June 29, 2012
This is Bob Peaase' recently uncovered 1991 memorial to Bob Widlar, who died that year. Like Pease, Widlar was a giant of analog semiconductor design. He was also a colorful character, as Pease' anecdotes amply illustrate.
First published in the July 25, 1991 issue

When we got the word that Bob Widlar had passed away on February 27, 1991 at the young age of 53 (heck, I’ll be up there in a couple years, if I’m lucky…), we all began to bring out stories about things Widlar had done. There are lots of good Widlar stories, and many of them have been printed recently. I will just try to tell here the ones that nobody else has told.

First of all, Widlar did not bring in a goat to chew down the unmowed lawns at National (when the pay to the gardeners was cut back). That would be absurd. Widlar would not do that. What he brought in was a sheep. I can prove it, because Fran Hoffart showed me a picture of the sheep. Widlar brought the sheep in the backseat of his Mercedes-Benz convertible. That would be nice to document with a photo, but Fran didn’t get a photo of the sheep’s arrival. However, Bob Dobkin told me that he drove up with Widlar and the sheep, after Widlar bought the sheep in Morgan Hill for $60. Dobkin said that after the sheep was tied up to a tree in front of National’s headquarters, the news photographers only took 20 minutes to show up. At the end of the day, Widlar went over to a bar and took the sheep with him. He left the sheep with the bartender.

That leads to another story, about the time Bob made the gardeners unhappy. Nobody remembers exactly what he did to make them so unhappy, but it must have been pretty good. One person said maybe that was the time Widlar could not find a good parking space, so he parked his convertible on the lawn—repeatedly. The gardeners retaliated by letting a sprinkler run into that area, and when he came out to go home, the car had several inches of water in it. Did Widlar retaliate after that? Nobody remembers, but even Widlar knew that sometimes, it’s time to quit when you are overmatched.

Charlie Sporck (who has just retired as the president of National) told me about the first time he met Bob. He was in a hospitality suite of the IEEE in New York City back in 1966. He was reading in Electronic News that Raytheon had just brought out an RM709 as a second source to the Fairchild µA709. Bob, who was not pleased at being second sourced, came over, and, uttering a generalized profanity, set fire to the newspaper. Charlie was astonished, and threw it into a metal wastebasket. Unfortunately the fire did not go out. As they tried to extinguish the fire, the smoke alarms went off and the fire department arrived. So much for first impressions…

When I first came out to National in February of 1976, I was in a good mood, and I set about my new work whistling cheerfully—until Widlar came by. Bob reminded me that my whistling was bothering people. In fact, my whistling was annoying him. He came by about six times that day to remind me, and each time I assured him I was trying to stop whistling as well as I could, but the music (Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas) was really circling around gloriously inside my head, trying to get out. He was as good-natured as he could be, and I finally broke the habit—after about a week of reminders.

There were just certain kinds of annoying sounds that he felt he didn’t have to put up with, and to a large extent he was fair about that. Hacksawing large pieces of metal? Take it outside. Drilling many holes in a chassis? Wait until everybody went to lunch. Print out a huge print-out on the new line printer? Well, if Widlar could not get this noise delayed until “lunch time,” Widlar would just go out to lunch with Dobkin or Mineo or both, right then. Whether it was 10 A.M. or 3 P.M., Widlar didn’t need much aggravation to convince him it was “lunch time.” Some days, he did indeed drink a lot of lunch. But that didn’t prevent Bob from getting lots of good ideas done. It may have helped.

We still have a sign around our lab, “This is not a blacksmith shop.”  But there were times when Bob would discover he had wasted a day or two, just because one bad part had screwed up his circuit. He would bring this bad part—a capacitor, a pot, a transistor, an IC, or whatever—over to the vise and lay it on the anvil part. Then he would calmly, methodically beat it with a hammer until the smallest remaining part was indistinguishable from the dust on the floor. Then he would go back to work and get the right answer. He explained that it makes you feel much better if you do this, and, you know that bad part will never come around again and goof you up. He was right, and I recommend that you join me in doing this “Widlarizing” when a bad component fools you. You will feel a lot better.

One time Bob was standing up on a lab stool in the hall outside his office, taping a large firecracker to the paging system loudspeaker, when Pierre Lamond happened by. Pierre was the vice president in charge of R&D, and Bob loved to give him a hard time. Pierre asked, “What are you doing, Bob?” Bob replied, “I am going to blow out these damn speakers.” Pierre used all of his Gallic aplomb and replied, “Oh,” and turned and walked back out the door. Widlar lit off the fuse and hopped down. Then an M-84’s blast ripped the cone out of the speaker. Bob had to repeat the blast to get the paging system to stop making noises in his lab. And poor Pierre must have been under great stress to realize Bob was setting such a bad example, but Pierre could not let on that it was bothering him.

So, Widlar was not averse to fighting noise with noise. One of the celebrated things Widlar did was to put a “hassler” in his office. When a person came into his office and spoke loudly, this circuit would detect the audio, convert the audio to a very high audio frequency, and play back this converted sound. The louder you talked, the lower the pitch would come down into the audio spectrum, and the louder it would play. So if you really hollered, it would make sort of a ringing in your ears. Of course, if you noticed this “ringing” in your ears, and stopped for a while to listen, the “hassle” circuit would shut up. He gradually got people to stop yelling at him. I mean, Bob really was almost always a soft-spoken person. He didn’t have to yell or shout to get his message across. When he did speak, and softly at that, people would seen realize that it was a good idea to listen to him.

One night Bob left the “hassle” on. The next morning, his secretary tried to do some typing, and every time she hit a key, the “hassle” would chirp. It drove her nuts until Widlar came in and turned it off.

One thing that would have made Bob gripe was to see “consultant” in his obituaries. Bob never failed to point out that he was NOT a consultant. Consultants get paid for showing up. Bob was a contractor, and contractors get paid for making things that work. Bob did get paid because his circuits did work. Of course, sometimes it took several masksets, and several years, because Bob was doing tasks there that weren’t easy.

Let me correct another error in the obituaries. The first story we heard was that Bob died while jogging on the beach, a story that got into all of the papers. Actually, he had been running up on a high ridge, and was apparently descending a steep trail down from this ridge when the heart attack hit him, and he fell in a dive and died. Not just an easy jog along the beach. Bob was, in recent years, pretty much into fitness, and he worked hard at his running. Recently, he had apparently cut down a lot on his drinking, too. Maybe the alcohol had chased away the coronaries, and the lack of alcohol contributed to the heart attack? I’m no doctor. But he did not die drunk, which may have amazed a number of his colleagues.

One time Bob was out drinking beer with his friends and he told his friend Ken Craft that he could drink a mug of beer faster than Craft could throw a mug of beer over his shoulder. At the word GO, Ken flung his beer over his shoulder in about one second flat. Widlar just stood there and smiled, and then slowly raised his mug to his lips, saying, “You win.”

What technical things did Bob accomplish? Well, in addition to the op amps and the bandgap references, Bob also brought out the industry’s first high-power voltage regulator, the LM109. A couple of people reminded me that in the fall of 1967, there had been a big controversy about whether it would be possible for anybody to build a high-power regulator on one monolithic chip. There were little letters to the editor in several magazines, pro and con. Finally, Widlar settled the argument by writing an authoritative-sounding letter. It pointed out that the thermal gradients on a chip would make it impossible to make a high-power chip with good performance, and the features would be impossible, and the reliability would be impossible. That settled the argument. Everybody shut up, because obviously Widlar knew what he was talking about. Then two months later, Widlar introduced the 20-W LM109, and it included all those features that Widlar said were impossible. All of the IC engineers realized Widlar had taken them for a ride, and that he had the last laugh. What a master of the art of playing games!

When the first LM109s were ready for testing, Widlar designed a tester, and Ken Craft built it up. Widlar came over to try it out. He griped, “It works okay, but the START pushbutton is on the left side, and it ought to be on the right side.” The next day, Widlar came by the box and there was a big arrow, “PUSH to test,” pointing at a blank area on the right side of the top of the box. Widlar, being a curious sort, decided to PUSH where it was indicated. Immediately the test sequence began and cycled through, with a green light going on. What the heck?? There was no pushbutton there, but every time Widlar pushed the spot on the panel, the test sequence occurred. Ken had cut away the copper foil at that place and installed a sensitive light-detector under the epoxy pc-board material. When you put your finger on that spot and blocked off the light, it would trigger the tester as a conventional pushbutton would do. Widlar was pleased that his guys would come up with a sneaky, ingenious scheme like that.

What other technical things did Widlar do? Even at the end of his career, Bob eschewed Spice and similar computer simulations. He preferred to use breadboards, all sorts of breadboards, and also “the Mexican computer.” Namely, he used Teledeltos paper to make resistive analogues and simulate the two-dimensional flow of current (see “What’s All This Teledeltos Stuff, Anyhow?”). How many of you guys have used it? I recall we used it in school, 32 years ago, and I still use it every other year. You sketch the shape of your resistive pattern onto this resistive paper, at about 400 Ω per square (give or take 4 or 5 dB). You cut out the outlines, and paint on silver conductive paint at the border where current comes and goes. Then, after the paint dries, you shove in some currents and read the voltages and see if the ratios seem right. If not, it’s cut-and-paste time again. Bob used this technique a lot to get some measure of how currents would flow. I don’t think he ever actually did any of this work in Mexico, but I guess he could have if he had to. He never did any breadboarding or measuring down in Mexico; he would write in his notebooks, and then come up to Santa Clara and try them. He kept very neat notebooks, and he also wrote neat script when it came to writing technical papers—someday I intend to show that George Philbrick’s penmanship and Widlar’s were uncannily similar.

Of course, the stories about Widlar in a light mood were almost as bizarre as they were true. He would sometimes go to the airport, walk up to a ticket counter, and ask the clerk, “What time does your next plane leave?” The clerk would mention the time and destination. “Our next departure is at 5:20 P.M., flight 772 to Vancouver.” Then Widlar would haul out his wallet and peel off some bills and buy a round-trip ticket to this random place from the astonished clerk. In a few days, Widlar would return from his surprise vacation.

Sometimes, Widlar took one of his secretaries and picked her up by the ankles and lowered her head into a fountain. She seemed to like it. (Jim Dunkley told me this. He said her name was Nancy…)

I gave a paper at a conference in March of 1970 in Paris. Widlar also gave a paper. I recall that at the end of lunch, Widlar made sure that he got a full bottle of wine to bring back with him into the conference hall, in addition to the wine he had enjoyed with his lunch. When it was time for Bob to give his talk, he had knocked the level of the wine bottle down quite low. He always said he didn’t find it easy to give a big lecture, unless he had some tranquilizer in his stomach. At this conference, Bob was well tranquilized, and he was giving a good lecture about his new circuits. But the translator (English into French) was having difficulty keeping up with all of the obscure technical phrases that Widlar was tossing off so easily and rapidly. A couple times, the translator begged somebody to get Widlar to slow down. But nobody could slow him down. Finally, the translator gave an anguished cry of distress and walked out. Bob just kept on explaining his circuits, without slowing down or speeding up. Afterwards, when conference chairman Jerry Eimbinder told Widlar he would have to speak more slowly the next time, Widlar responded, “the next time I talk here, you’d better get better interpreters…”

A year ago, Jim Williams was compiling the book “Analog Circuit Design: Art, Science and Personalities.”1 I asked Widlar if he would like to write a chapter or two. Bob gave a shrug of disinterest and kept on with what he was doing. I asked if he would like to just talk into a tape recorder and we could get it typed. No, not interested. I asked, well, surely there must be a story that ought to be told, shouldn’t you tell it? He explained, with weary patience, that he really had no interest in telling any such stories. I knew better than to try to argue with a guy who obviously knew what he didn’t want to do. Maybe I should have invented a trick—taken a tape recorder down to a bar and let the tape run? Obviously, if you can predict when you’re going to lose a legend like Widlar, you would resort to a trick like that. But, we just saved all the good stories we could… and the ones printed here are less than half of the good printable ones, not to mention all of the ones that could never be printed…

Obviously, there will never be another engineer like Widlar. He led the linear IC industry in many amazing new directions. I think every circuit designer has looked at one of Widlar’s new circuits and said, “Good heavens. You can do that? If it works the way he says it does, then I could use some of these ideas to improve my circuits…” I found several places where I could correct or improve some of Bob’s applications circuits, where he added resistors and capacitors around the IC. But I never found places to improve his ICs. This fall there will be a technical paper published in the IEEE Journal of Solid State Circuits, on the topic of substrate current flow in ICs. And everybody will read it and say, “But, of course he’s right. Why didn’t I think of that myself, first?” I’m not sure if Bob Widlar ever designed an obvious circuit in his life.

All for now. / Comments invited! / RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer

1 Published June 1991 by Butterworth-Heinemann, Stoneham.

About the Author

Bob Pease

Bob obtained a BSEE from MIT in 1961 and was a staff scientist at National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara, CA, for many years. He was a well known and long time contributing editor to Electronic Design.

We also have a number of PDF eBooks by Bob that members can download from the Electronic Design Members Library.

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