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Eric Lidow: Power Electronics Pioneer

Jan. 28, 2013
Eric Lidow arrived in New York in October 1937 with $14 in his pocket, so it’s almost impossible to believe that this man and his family would create groundbreaking technological innovations and build a company that would achieve sales of $1 billion by 2004

One of the rare privileges of being a journalist reporting on the electronics industry is that very occasionally you get the opportunity to meet and talk with somebody who has had a defining influence on how that business and its technology developed. Such a man was Eric Lidow, founder of International Rectifier, who died on January 19.

I first met Lidow in 2002 during a very interesting lunch with him and another journalist from Germany in a Los Angeles restaurant. He was astute, informative, and very entertaining. At the end of the meal we thanked him for his time, and he replied that he always enjoyed lunching with European editors since it gave him a good excuse to drink red wine in the middle of the day. How many 90-year-olds could say that?

It would take a substantial tome to fully recount his immense technological and commercial impact on the electronics industry, so this column can only scratch the surface. He was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, in December 1912 and later was educated as an electrical engineer in Berlin, where he completed his master’s degree.

During the 1930s, he saw Germany enter a period of social and political turmoil with the emergence of Nazism. As a founding member of the Berlin Zionist Society, Lidow saved the lives of many Jews by helping them to leave Germany before World War II.

He eventually left himself and arrived in New York in October 1937 with $14 in his pocket, so it’s almost impossible to believe that this man and his family would create groundbreaking technological innovations and build a company that would achieve sales of $1 billion by 2004 and employ thousands of people worldwide.

IR’s Creation

In 1946, Lidow located his parents, both Holocaust survivors, and brought them to the United States. A year later, he founded International Rectifier (IR) with his father Leon. The company’s primary objective was to use the process the Lidows had developed for making selenium rectifiers that converted alternating electrical current to direct electrical current. Eric remained as CEO until 1995 and as chairman of the board until 2008.

In the beginning, the company manufactured rectifiers, diodes, and transistors. It then progressed to germanium-based systems and launched germanium rectifiers in 1954. Subsequently, it accumulated an impressive list of technological achievements and related patents. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the company financially. Company stocks rose and fell in a way that typified the electronics industry, then and now.

HEXFET Development

In the mid-1970s, Eric’s sons Alexander and Derek joined the company. Both made important contributions to the business. Alexander in particular became deeply involved with his father in developing a technology that would break down further electronic application barriers and secure IR’s future for decades to come.

In 1976, Alexander began working on an advanced MOSFET. This early development work impressed his father, who decided to financially support the idea. It resulted in the creation of the first HEXFET. The financial success of this innovation was by no means immediate, however, mainly because the costs involved in making HEXFETs commercially viable were extremely heavy.

Eric was so determined to bring the HEXFET project to fruition, though, IR continued to accrue larger and larger debt. IR’s and Eric’s financial fortitude paid off, and by the early 1980s, HEXFET sales had topped $100 million.

So as well as being an innovative technical pioneer, Eric Lidow was not afraid of financial risk if he felt that the technology was right. Such was the philosophy he applied to the creation of a fabrication facility in Temecula, Calif., that would eventually achieve production rates far higher than the national average for semiconductor manufacturing.

IR continued to prosper. As it entered the 21st century, sales continued to escalate thanks to its technology and the fact the company had embarked on a programme of acquisitions that enhanced to its product portfolio.

The Man Behind The Desk

IR had matured into a very large and international success story, but one thing remained constant during all of its growth. Eric Lidow still liked nothing better than getting into work everyday and spending time in the engineering section, something he did right into his nineties.

He was also a devoted family man, a proud supporter of Israel, The Technion, The City of Hope, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and countless philanthropic organisations and individuals through the years.

I last saw him in 2005 when I visited a small Italian restaurant called Caffe Pinguini near Playa del Rey, Calif. It was widely known as a favourite lunchtime location for Eric where he could spend time with family and colleagues and, I suspect, enjoy a glass of red wine.

Eric Lidow was an engineering pioneer in the true sense of the word, and his technological contributions were invaluable to the electronics industry and to the millions of consumers who benefited from them.

1. Eric Lidow, founder of International Rectifier, served as its CEO until 1995 and as chairman of its board until 2008. He died on January 19.

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