He has been called an enigma, an unpredictable character, a lover of practical jokes and antics, and "one of the most prolific and clever engineers of our era." But one thing that those who knew him agree upon, Bob Widlar was an extraordinarily successful engineer and a true genius of linear integrated circuit (IC) design.
"He was the world's first, and by any margin, greatest linear designer," says Charles Sporck, president and CEO of National Semiconductor Corporation (NSC). "More than anyone else," he continues, "Widlar was responsible for developing one of NSC's great strengths -- its excellence in the area of linear products..." To this day, NSC is building and selling linear products that Widlar designed.
Widlar's untimely death in February 1991 was a great loss for the industry. He died of a heart attack while jogging near his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at the age of 53. He had a fruitful and, some would say, eccentric lifestyle.
Widlar was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where he developed an early interest in electronics. At the age of 15, he was billed in a local newspaper article as an "electronics designer and experimenter, who repaired radio and TV sets as a sideline." As a teenager, he also played radio pranks on the Cleveland police.
He entered the Air Force in 195-8 as a technical instructor and began taking courses through CU's Extension Center in February 1959. He also worked for Ball Brothers in Boulder designing linear and digital circuits. He graduated from CU with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1962 and left Ball a year later to join Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View, California. At age 27, Widlar became head of linear IC development at Fairchild and began to make his lasting mark.
In 1964, he launched a $10 billion industry with the design of the first important linear IC, the LM101 operational amplifier (op amp) that established the commercial viability of monolithic linear technology. Widlar originated four products at Fairchild, including what some have called his greatest achievement, the op amp 709, the industry's best seller. In 1966, Widlar formed the linear IC group at NSC and while responsible for now product design until 1970, developed 15 more products.
Widlar had always been a loner. Unmarried and without children, he cashed in the fruits of his early success at NSC and drove his Mercedes to Mexico. But he never stopped working. New designs and technical papers continued to flow from the one-room adobe bungalow in Puerto Vallarta, where no electronic equipment existed. "Whatever I design on paper will work," Widlar said with confidence.
He was right, and at the ripe age of 37, Widlar ended his "retirement" when he agreed to become a subcontractor and offer all new IC designs first to NSC. He continued to work until the day he died.
Today, over two dozen of his products are in volume production. Some have been for over 20 years. He pioneered such innovations as the bandgap reference and supergain transistor, as well as numerous design techniques widely used today.
This is not the only history Widlar made; his non-technical antics are also legend. When NSC decided to cut back on landscape expenses during an austerity program, Widlar turned a goat loose to graze on the company's lawn. Later, he put in a requisition for a bale of hay, 50 feet of manila rope, a used tire, and 500 pounds of bananas. Not to be outdone, management filled Widlar's office with the requested "supplies" with a note: "The bananas are on back order!"
An ax always stood in the corner of his office. "That's to keep my staff in line," he would laugh.
Interaction with Widlar was sometimes not a simple matter. One old friend, Carl Nelson, said, "It was prickly talking to him. Like driving a Ferrari. The car only comes into its own at 150 mph, and things are a little touchy at that speed."
Widlar was also known for his love of good spirits. When giving speeches, he would have a glass of champagne in his hand and a loaded pistol in his attache. "I have to be drunk to get down to your level," he joked. Why the pistol? "In case anyone falls asleep," he replied.
With more than a dozen each of patents and publications to his credit, Widlar was a "Silicon Valley original," says Sporck. "He was the world's first, and by any margin, greatest linear designer. He was not only prominent and colorful, he made the linear industry what it is today by producing outstanding designs."
Widlar is survived by two brothers, Jim and Tom, a sister, Jane West, and nephew, Michael who graduates from CU this month with a degree in chemistry.