The Genius of Bob Widlar

National Semiconductor Ad
A famous National Semiconductor ad based on the Widlar Salute and methedology

If you are at all interested in early IC design, especially that in the start of silicon valley, it’s likely that you will have come across the name Bob Widlar. If you have not heard of him then this post may shed some light on an early pioneer of the semiconductor industry. Not just a great hardware engineer, arguably a legendary one. Shaping integrated circuit designs for over a decade he created circuits still in use today, and some of the most famous chips ever. Including the uA702, the first linear IC operational amplifier and the LM109, the first high power voltage regulator. Although a great engineer he was famous for his pranks, and odd office habits. He definitely would not like the current state of corporations, with a bohemian look on life Bob Widlar can definitely be described as eccentric.

Bob widlar salute
Bob Widlar showing the official Widlar salute.

In the late 1960’s and 70’s the semiconductor industry was like something out of a scene in a wild west film. The bars around Silicon Valley were packed day and night with engineers creating innovative circuits and designs left and right, and Bob was right there in the middle of it all. I think a key point to note is that he was partial to his alcohol, for better or worse there are accounts that he wouldn’t make a speech until the had his allotment of scotch or wine. This wasn’t uncommon for the time though, everyone around him was likely the same. The History of Semiconductor Engineering (a very expensive book) describes, “Bob was a fiercely independent individual, very happy to be by himself, and he did everything in a stunning way, which was absolutely natural to him, but completely weird to so-called ‘normal people’.” Basically he didn’t care what other people thought about him. If you want to change an entire industry you have to upset a few people on your way, so this mindset might be best.

Bob Widlar disliked digital circuitry
It could be said that Bob widlar was not a fan of digital circuitry.

There isn’t much known about his early life, and reportedly rarely spoke about it. We do know thought that electronics played a huge role in his early life as his dad was a self taught radio engineer. His father worked at a local radio station so Bob had access to ultra-high frequency transmitters. At 15 he was featured in his local newspaper as an electronics designer who could fix radio and TV sets. Allegedly he also played pranks on the local police using radios, but there is no known details. The passion for electronics continued on when he joined the United States Air Force in 1958. He was responsible for teaching fellow recruits in the use of electronic equipment such as radios. During this time he actually wrote a book, his first, Introduction to Semiconductor Devices. This seems to be a slightly different person to the famous side of Bob Widlar. Some say that his “liberal mind” wasn’t a good fit for the military environment, but his early performance reviews suggest otherwise. His superiors noted his superior electronics and communications skills, they also noted that he had an above average ability to use clear concise words to express himself, and always strived for perfection. In areas of improvement he was recommended to stop dramatising his frustrations at inefficiencies that exist”. This might be closer to the famous widlar. He then left the service in 1961 for unknown reasons, and joined the Ball Brother Research Corporation in Boulder, Colorado. There he helped develop analog and digital equipment for NASA. He was simultaneously studying for a degree with the University of Colorado and graduated in the summer of 1963.

His work at Ball Brothers brought him in contact with Jean Heorni and Sheldon Roberts (who invented radiation hardened transistors), some of the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor. They breached professional ethics by hiring him, a key employee of their customer. He apparently arrived at the interview intoxicated and told the R&D manager what he thought of Fairchild’s analog circuits, saying”what they are doing is bullshit”. He had a second interview and was hired even with the objections by the initial interviewers. His first task at Fairchild was to target IC reliability by improving the fabrication process. He managed to reduce the price of the planar process, and showed he could improve his own bosses designs and squeezed him out of the company. At this point Fairchild only had a lineup of three analog IC’s, all designed for the military, all amplifiers. They were all built inefficiently, like a conventional circuit with discrete devices, creating a sort of hybrid IC. The famous Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law fame) wanted the company to favour digital IC’s as they were cheaper, easier to design and allowed high volume. Widlar opposed the strategy and held digital electronics in low esteem, famously saying “every idiot can count to one”. Along with the process engineer David Talbert, they rushed through Widlars designs for new and improved analog IC’s, changing the industry as they did so. He managed to remove the need for big resistors and capacitors in IC’s, and truly grasped the planar process. This is when he created the μA702, the first true linear integrated circuit, and the first monolithic operational amplifier.

Bob and a group of engineers at National Semiconductor.

He also created the μA709, another legendary chip. This moved Fairchild to become the leader in the field of linear IC’s. Their circuits were sold out for two years. Some say that at one point Widlar designed and Talbert made 80% of the linear circuits in the world. The problem was that Fairchild never shared the massive profits with them. So he took up a job with National Semiconductor in 1965, taking a huge amount of stock as part of the deal. He refused to do the exit interview at Fairchild and wrote one line to them “I want to be RICH!”. Oddly, Fairchild continued to pay his salary until 1966, Widlar said “Maybe they did not believe that I was actually leaving. Some people are really a little slow.” By 1966 they had set up the epitaxial process at Santa Clara, and created the industry’s first linear regulator. The LM100, a revolutionary new circuit became a flagship product, soon followed up in 1967 with the LM101, an op amp with highly improved performance due to a simple yet robust design. He followed it up with many more improvements to amplifiers, with higher bandwidth, voltage and gain. As well as the famous Widlar current source, he also managed to harness the bandgap phenomenon and built the bandgap voltage reference. This allowed the design of the LM109, a voltage regulator with a power transistor and precise voltage source on one die, something never seen before. By this time Fairchild had gone into a massive decline while National Semiconductor had rocketed up the food chain. In December 1970 he resigned from National Semiconductor and cashed in his stock for $1 million, apparently due to payment issues. He retired to Puerto Rico at the age of 33. The next four years he spent as a consultant.

Widlar current source. Original drawing from the 1967 U.S. patent.

He did come back to National Semiconductor in 1974 as a consultant. During the short stints he spent there he developed the LM12 power amplifier and and the LM10 ultra-low voltage amplifier. These have stayed in production until the 21st century, with the LM10 not even having a reasonable clone for the next decade. in 1981 he spent three years starting Linear Technologies, but this relationship eventually fell apart three years later over patent rights, and his shares were forcibly bought. For the remainder of his life he worked at National semiconductor until 1991 when he died of a heart attack at the age of 53. He had apparently taken up running late in his life and was much healthier. One of his fellow engineers Bob Pease said the damage was done in the first 20 years.

Bob Widlar standing over artwork of the LM10 power amplifier

On top of his famously eccentric nature, fighting in bars and unceremoniously leaving companies he was a well known prankster. The most famous one was the day he brought a sheep to work. The reason was to save money for the company by using it as a lawn mower. He brought it in the back of his Mercedes-Benz convertible for the day. The management not particularly pleased refused to comment. Widlar even invited some young photojournalists to document the event. After the day he left the sheep in a local bar and it was “mysteriously stolen”. On another note he apparently disliked people coming into his office and being excessively loud. He therefore built what is now known as a Hassler circuit which emits a high pitched sound whenever it hears something too loud. In the same vein he also blew up a public address speaker he found annoying with firecrackers! As an analog engineer and highly skilled with high frequency transmitters he once traced one of his problems to interference from the control tower of San Jose airport. In the Widlar way he called up the airport and demanded that they shut down the transmitter. He did have a thing about faulty components and problems, as any electronic engineer can appreciate. If he had spent a day trying to fix a fault just to find a simple component was the cause he would take it out to the workshop an pulverize it with a hammer. The practice now known as Widlarizing usually uses a sledgehammer and requires the component to be smashed so small you don’t even need to sweep it up off the floor. This was so the component couldn’t cause anyone else more problems.

Bob Widlar with the famous sheep, trying to get it to mow the lawn for him. The Mercedes is in the background, badly parked.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or general history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on. Most of all, thank you for taking the time to read my posts.

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