Jun 21, 2011

The Loss of Legends

Sad news to report as the electronics industry has lost two of its design legends. Jim Williams, an analog circuit designer with Linear Technology (LTC), and Bob Pease, an analog circuit designer with National Semiconductor (NSC), both died suddenly just over a week apart. Jim (63) suffered a severe stroke on Friday June 10th and passed away early Sunday morning. His funeral was held this past weekend with several senior engineers in attendance. As it turns out, Bob Pease (70) was among the crowd of mourners. While driving home from the service Bob lost control of his car and hit a tree. There are ongoing investigations into whether he may have suffered a heart attack or stroke, which could have contributed to the crash.

To say these guys were analog circuit designers trivializes their impact on the electronics world. They were world renowned experts in their field. In an age where more engineers are relying on circuit simulation software as their crutch, they relied on their intuitive understanding of electronics to turn analog design into an art form. Here’s a hint for anyone unaware – analog design is hard. It’s really hard. There are guys who spend their whole lives designing analog circuits but are lost when they look at a schematic of a Pease or Williams original. What adds to their mystique is how they easily they would explain away the most complex circuits. Both men had a knack for making the impossible seem trivial and that is where their greatness lies.

I have only become aware of these two within the last year, but the few articles and papers I have been able to get my hands on blew me away. To celebrate the lives of these two extraordinarily talented engineers, let’s take a closer look into their careers.

Jim Williams

Jim Williams spent a year and a half at Wayne State University in Detroit studying psychology before dropping out. He took a job with the MIT Nutrition Lab shortly afterward where he would build circuits for their test equipment and experiments. Jim was introduced to electronics by a neighbor who loved design and collected oscilloscopes in his garage but had no formal education in the subject.

After 10 years of working at MIT and doing some consulting work on the side for various electronics and integrated circuits manufacturers, like Analog Devices, Jim went to work with National Semiconductor out in Silicon Valley in 1978. He was a mainstay in the linear integrated circuits group while at NSC but by 1982 he had moved on to become the first applications engineer at the then start up company Linear Technology. Since that time, Jim has written dozens of application notes for LTC (“Switching Regulators for Poets” is a personal favorite – check out the last page to see why)  and over 60 articles on Analog Design for Electronics Design News (EDN), a website/magazine dedicated to circuit design. He helped build Linear Technology into one of the biggest analog electronics components suppliers in the world from the ground up.

In 1992, Jim won EDN’s “Innovator of the Year” award for his work in analog design. Jim was touring around companies and campuses in more recent years giving lectures on analog design to students and younger engineers. LTC even featured him in a few of their testing methods videos on YouTube.

He has written over 350 publications on analog circuit design including a book co-authored with the co-founder of LTC Bob Dobkin due to be released later this year. In 2002 he was elected into the Electronic Design Hall of Fame with the likes of Tesla, Turing, Shannon, and Widlar.
Jim was still working at LTC at the time of his death as their “Staff Scientist” citing that he only had two fears in life “sickness and retirement…in that order “.

Bob Pease

Bob Pease graduated from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering in 1961. He took a job designing vacuum tube amplifiers and voltage-to-frequency converters at a company called Philibrick Researches. In 1976, Pease migrated to Silicon Valley to work at National Semiconductor where he remained until retiring in 2009 (he remained a technical consultant for National Semiconductor right up until his death).

Like Jim Williams, Pease wrote articles for EDN and even received his own column called “Pease Porridge”, where he would reflect on electronics, life, and whatever he wanted. By 1992, his column won the Certificate of Merit from the Jesse H Neal Awards Committee of American Business Publications. Pease also wrote a book called “Troubleshooting Analog Circuits” that has become a best-selling electrical engineering text and is now in its 14th printing. I have only read selected sections, but I can tell it is a quality read and a great reference for any engineer.

During his years at NSC, Bob Pease became the face of the company by touring the world and participating in analog design seminars. By the time he retired, Pease had personally designed more than 20 integrated circuits and held 21 patents. His ICs found their way onto the Apollo spacecraft and were used on medical missions to Mount Everest. One of his most famous designs, the LM337 negative voltage regulator, has sold over 135 million copies in its lifetime.

Pease managed to evolve with the times and started hosting an online electronics show called “Analog by Design” shortly after the turn of the century, which featured engineers from National Semiconductor and other agencies discussing the nuances of good analog design. Bob Pease was also a member of the inaugural class of engineers for the Electronic Design Hall of Fame in 2002.

**UPDATE**  National Semiconductor has posted a memorial video on their website, which is definitely worth checking out if you want to get a sense of this guys personality. Click here to check it out.

I haven’t been around this industry long enough to really grasp the body of work these two men established during their lifetime. In the short while I have had to study their work I have been amazed at what they were able to build without any of the fancy test equipment we have today. Their understanding of electronics and their willingness to impart their knowledge have elevated these two men into electronics legend.

To Bob and Jim, thank you for everything you gave to the electronics community and for all those you inspired, and continue to inspire, to be better. Rest in peace.


Noah Ryan said...

Very nice. Maybe you should post about papers or articles, from these two or from others.
I liked the last page of that article btw.

Anonymous said...

And I'm just learning about his death. What a loss. Bob has inspired me since I was a kid reading the Engineer's Notebook from Radio Shack. I STILL refer to that book! RI, Mr. Pease.

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