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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How the Type G Gate Worked

apollo 3 input NOR gate
An image of the silicon die inside the Type G 3 input NOR gate used to power the Apollo Guidance computer.

Previously I went through the three input NOR gate that ran the Apollo Guidance Computer and how the circuit works. Previous to that I also told the story of how this chip partially funded Silicon Valley as we know it today. This post builds on that and goes through how the silicon works, and the simplicity of the circuit. Quite a famous image of the chip, fairly detailed image of the silicon inside the device spurred on this post, and taught me lots about silicon that I want to pass on.

apollo 3 input NOR gate schem annotated
The schematic of the 3 input NOR gate. From the schematic of the Apollo Guidance Computer. Annotated with my own designators for reference.

The above schematic of the 3 input NOR gate is also shown in previous posts. It is from the NASA Apollo Guidance Computer schematic, but I have annotated it so that I can reference to specific parts. It is a handy schematic considering it was right at the start of the development of semiconductors. The first image in the post is the best image of the silicon, but is not very big. The biggest image I can find is not quite as sharp, but is much better to annotate, it is the same chip. The first annotation shows the pinout of the device, and how those pins actually connect to the pins.

apollo 3 input NOR pin out
The silicon of the 3 input NOR gate with annotations to show which pin is connected. The pin numbers are from the schematic.

Showing how pins are connected
An image showing how the pins coming off of the silicon are connected into pins of the flat pack.

The noted parts of the above images are pins 5 and 10, and are the starting points to deciphering the layout. If you look at pin 5 and 10 on the schematic, they correspond to GND and power respectively. They are the only pins that are shared between both NOR gates. Apart from that the two sides look remarkably similar, and are basically a mirrored version. To figure which is ground and which is power, the resistors need to be taken into account.

apollo 3 input NOR gate resistors
The resistors on the silicon of the device. Shown above as brown lines they are P doped silicon that act like a resistor.

The above image shows the resistors found on the device. They tend to just be a thin section of P doped silicon, and above connect two sections of aluminum to form a resistor. It is also noted that there is big section of brown surrounding the whole circuit. Although it functions like a resistor and is made in the same way, it is puterly for ESD purposes, protecting the circuit. This big ring also is a big hint that it is connected to ground (pin 5). the second hint is that GND has no resistors attached to it on the schematic, but power has two. They are R1 and R2, connecting to pin 9 and 1 respectively, and are pull up resistors. Pin R3 to R8 are simply the base resistors for the transistors. They are all roughly the same size, and are there are 6 of them. The transistors are also fairly obvious in the centre of the silicon.

apollo NOR gate transistors
The centre silicon from the Apollo 3 input NOR gate. The transistors have been shown, and the collector, base and emitter also shown,

The above image is showing the heart of the device. the 6 transistors that make it resistor-transistor logic. As you can see in the above image, all the collectors are connected together, connected to pins 1 and 9. If you look closely, the base and emitter of each transistor sit inside a brown section like the resistors. This is P doped silicon and forms the base-emitter junction. This allows the base and emitter to sit anywhere within that P doped silicon detection to work. This means that the transistors do not conform to the standard Collector-base-emitter topology. All of the emitters are also connected together via the aluminium placed on the top, but the P doped sections of each device are seperate. As all the transistors of each device have common emitters, it doesn’t matter that they are all connected together, by design, only one of the transistors needs to be on for it to function.

Ken Shirriff transistor side view
A great image showing how the transistor works from a side view by Ken Shirriff.

The above image found on Ken Shirriff’s blog shows how the transistor works with the emitter and base in the P doped silicon. I may do some more posts about it, but his blog is a great place to find more information on silicon reverse engineering.

Electronics world 1963
A cutout from electronics world in 1963 showing the new process of planar technology. This method was used to make the NOR gate.

The above image is an interesting one I found while researching this chip. A section in electronics world 1963 showing how micrologic is made. The type G chip was part of the second batch of micrologic circuits. This section was useful to see how silicon was actually manufactured, and in some ways, still is today.

The NOR Gate That Got Us To The Moon

Type G micrologic
The Fairchild Type ‘G’ Micrologic gate for the Apollo Guidance Computer – this is the flat pack verison

In a previous post I talked about how the going to the moon kick started the silicon age. If you haven’t read it, it is short but really interesting story about how NASA made Integrated circuits cheap, and partially funded what we now know as Silicon Valley. In this post I am going to take a slightly closer look at the circuit that ran the famous type “G” Micrologic gate that ran the Apollo Guidance Computer.

apollo 3 input NOR gate
The official NASA schematic of the Type G micrologic gate found in the Apollo Guidance Computer

As you can see in the above image, the circuit was not particularly complicated. You have to remember that this is very early logic, before CMOS or NMOS or any other fancy IC technologies. This is basically two 3 input NOR gates, they both run off the same power, with pin 10 at the top, and the negative which was likely ground being shared on pin 5. The output for the left NOR gate is pin 1, and the output for the right is pin 9. The three inputs for the left are pins 4, 2 and 3, with the right having pins 6, 7, and 8 as inputs. Simply put, the output is “pulled” high to power when all the inputs are OFF. The resistor between pin 10 and pin 1 (or 10 and 9) are a simple pull up resistor as you would find in most electronic circuits. As expected with a NOR gate, the output will be only be ON when all the inputs are OFF. When any of the inputs are ON the output of that gate will be pulled to ground. One two, or all the inputs can be on, but it just needs one to turn OFF the output. The resistors going into the base of the transistor are just to limit the current.

3 input NOR
My breadboarded version of the 3 input NOR gate, it is made with BC547 transistors and a DIP switch. the output has been inverted with the LED.

I made a simple recreation of this circuit using BC547 NPN transistors, but most NPN transistors would work, these were ones I found in my parts box. As you can see in the image above, I have made it on a breadboard, with the inputs being a DIP switch attached to the power (5V in this case). The base resistors for the transistors are 1K and the pull-up to 5V is a 10K. I recommend making up this circuit if you want to learn a bit more about logic, and is a cheaper method than going out to buy 74 series logic chips! As you can see in the images there are a number of states that I showed the circuit in, and notice that if any of the switches are on, the circuit turns on, this is slightly against what I mentioned earlier, but thats due to the output LED using the transistor as a current sink, not a source, so the output is inverted. Basically, when the output is 0 the LED turns on. The only time the LED is off (output high) is when no switches are on, meaning all the transistors are off.

apollo 3 input NOR gate
An image of the silicon die inside the Type G 3 input NOR gate. We will be going through how the layout works in a future post.

The final point for this post is why the circuit is actually quite inefficient. Modern logic is amazingly low power compared to this. One of the biggest issues is that it is always taking power in some way. When the inputs are off, there is still some leakage through the pull up resistor, when an input is on, then there is current going through the resistor to ground. Also, by the nature of the transistors there is always parasitic leakages, and inefficiencies in the process. They are only small numbers, but the AGC used over 3000 of these circuits, so the small leakages soon add up to draw some hefty power needs, especially for battery powered operations.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at the rest of my blog, there is lots about space, electronics and random history. I am always open to ideas and feedback, and where is best to post links to my posts.

How Going To The Moon Kick-started the Silicon Age

In the late 1950’s, there were three people who were at the epicenter of a huge breakthrough in the world of electronics, the invention of the Integrated Circuit (IC). Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, Kurt Lehovec of Sprague Electric Company, and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor. In August 1959, Fairchild Semiconductor Director of R&D, Robert Noyce asked Jay Last to begin development on the first Integrated Circuit. They developed a flip-flop with four transistors and five resistors using a modified Direct Coupled Transistor Logic. Named the type “F” Flip-Flop, the die was etched to fit into a round TO-18 packaged, previously used for transistors. Under the name Micrologic, the “F” type was announced to the public in March 1961 via a press conference in New York and a photograph in LIFE magazine. Then in October, 5 new circuits were released, the type “G” gate function, a half adder, and a half shift register.

The Type F flip flop
Junction-isolated version of the type “F” flip-flop. The die were etched to fit into a round TO-18 transistor package

Type F life image
Physically-isolated Micrologic flip-flop compared to a dime from LIFE magazine March 10, 1961

These first few integrated circuits were relatively slow, and only replaced a handful of components, while being sold for many times the price of a discrete transistor. The only applications that could afford the high prices were Aerospace and Military systems. The low power consumption and small size outweighed the price drawbacks, and allowed for new and more complex designs. In 1961, Jack Kilby’s colleague Harvey Craygon built a “molecular electronic computer” as a demonstration for the US Air Force to show that 587 Texas Instruments IC’s could replace 8,500 discrete components (like transistors and resistors) that performed the same function. In 1961, the most significant use of Fairchild Micrologic devices were in the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). It was designed by MIT and used 4,000 type “G” three input NOR gates. Over the Apollo project, over 200,000 units were purchased by NASA. The very early versions were $1000 each ($8000 today) but over the years prices fell to $20-$30 each. The AGC was the largest single user of IC’s through 1965.

apollo guidance computer logic module
Apollo logic module assembled by Raytheon to be used in the AGC

Type G micrologic
Philco Ford also produced the Fairchild Type ‘G’ Micrologic gate for the Apollo Guidance Computer – this is the flat pack verison

Note that although Fairchild designed and owned the type “G” device, they were mostly made by Raytheon and Philco Ford under licence from Fairchild. Over this time many semiconductor manufacturers such as Texas Instruments, Raytheon and Philco Ford were also making large scale silicon production for other military equipment. These included the LGM-30 Minuteman ballistic missiles, and a series of chips for space satellites. This major investment from the government and the military kick started the development of the increasingly complex semiconductor, and eventually forced the prices low enough for non military applications. The processes improved and by the end of the Apollo program, hundreds of transistors could be fitted into an IC, and more complex circuits were being made. Eventually the costs of adding more transistors to a circuit got extremely low, with the difficulty being the quality of manufacturing. It could be argued that NASA and the Pentagon paved the way for silicon device production as we know it today.