21 June 2011

Jim Williams and Bob Pease

I was shocked to discover that two of the great minds of analog circuitry—two of my engineering heroes—died recently in the span of a few days. Jim Williams of Linear Technology died of a massive stroke that he had suffered on June 10th. Then, incredibly, Bob Pease of National Semiconductor was killed in a car crash after leaving Williams’ memorial service.

Both of these men were unquestionably brilliant in the field of electronics, authors of books, countless application notes, and articles. But what made them stand out in my mind is their unwavering focus upon practical, economical results. These were not academic geniuses publishing esoterica but real engineers that cared about getting their products to work well in their customers’ circuits. Both were outspoken proponents of getting “down and dirty” with the soldering iron, building prototypes and measuring the circuitry itself instead of relying on computer models, and above all, thinking about what is happening in the circuit.

I met Jim Williams once, probably about twenty years ago, at a Linear Technology seminar. I don’t remember if I exchanged more than a couple of words of greeting with him. I was still something of a rookie engineer, and I believe I was a little star-struck. This awe had nothing to do with his personality, though; he was as approachable as it is possible to be.

Williams was a prolific author of applications notes, some of which have come to be favorites of mine. If you’re not an electrical engineer, you may not be familiar with application notes. Essentially, they are technical articles published by integrated circuit companies that give practical advice on the use of the company’s products. Now such articles are available in PDF form on the internet, of course, but in the “old days,” which is to say, the ‘90’s and earlier, application notes were compiled and bound into beautiful soft-cover “data books,” which were available for no charge. (The semiconductor companies would give them away in the hopes that engineers would learn about their products and be that much more likely to use them in designs.)

I accumulated several hundred data books over the years, most of which I have since discarded, but the data books of four companies—Analog Devices, Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, and Linear Technology—stood far above the rest, and they still populate my shelves. The applications notes of these four companies are classics, generally transcending the ordinary by providing advice and techniques that are widely applicable to all aspects of circuit design. Jim Williams was among the best authors of these notes. His writings were clear, completely free of academic vanity, and peppered with his unique wit and wisdom. 

Some glimpses into the mind of Jim Williams.

I saw Bob Pease once, when he was a speaker at a National Semiconductor seminar, though I don’t believe that I actually introduced myself. I own an excellent book that he wrote, Troubleshooting Analog Circuits, and I am sure that many of the little techniques and habits I currently employ in my designs are derived from Pease’s writings. One article alone, a little gem called “Understand Capacitor Soakage to Optimize Analog Systems,” has revolutionized my designs in sample-and-hold circuits and analog integrators.

Interestingly, my only contact with him was an exchange of letters many years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot find the correspondence in my files (I’ll write a separate post if I ever find it), but I wrote him a note objecting to a point he made in one of his columns—I think he had advocated government interference in an area that ought to be free from meddling. All I remember is that in my note to Pease I believe I mentioned Ayn Rand and certainly quoted Cypress Semiconductor’s T.J. Rodgers (another hero of mine); in his reply to me, Pease was unmoved, writing that T.J. Rodgers could “go to hell”! In any case, this exchange did not significantly detract from my opinion of Pease; if anything, it emphasized his passion. The fact that he even bothered to write and mail a reply impressed me. If his great precision and independence in thinking does not necessarily extend to philosophical matters, he is hardly unique in that. He remains an extraordinary figure and one of my great engineering heroes.

Some glimpses into the mind of Bob Pease.


1. Paul Rako, “Analog guru Jim Williams dies after a stroke,” EDN Magazine, June 13, 2011, “http://www.edn.com/article/518496-Analog_guru_Jim_Williams_dies_after_stroke.php”.

2. Joseph Esposito, “Bob Pease Remembered For Pease Porridge And A Whole Lot More,” Electronic Design Magazine, June 20, 2011, “http://electronicdesign.com/print/analog-and-mixed-signal/Bob-Pease-Remembered-For-Pease-Porridge-And-A-Whole-Lot-More.aspx”.

Be sure to check out this excellent post at the Computer History Museum.

Credit goes to Linear Technology, specifically the data book "1990 Linear Applications Handbook - Volume 1," from which I captured a few pages of Jim Williams writings and drawings. From the EDN magazine web site I obtained the image of Jim Williams, and the picture of Bob Pease comes from the National Semiconductor web site. Finally, the representative images of Pease's column are from some clippings I saved from Electronic Design magazine.


Kent Lundberg said...

Jim Williams wrote over 1600 pages of application notes for Linear Technology. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to read them all and blog about it as I do.


Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the note and the link, Kent! I've bookmarked the link, and I'm looking forward to reading your comments.