International Rectifier co-founder and chairman Eric Lidow, 94, will be honored this week with the EE Times ACE Lifetime Achievement Award. EE Times editor in chief Brian Fuller sat down with Lidow in his El Segundo, Calif., office late last month.
EE Times: In 1960, you built the world's first solar-powered car. Why did you do it then?
Eric Lidow: I felt that the company required some recognition, because it was totally unknown. No one knew what International Rectifier was. In the early days, I mentioned to one lady that I was a rectifier engineer, and she asked me if that was legal. So we wanted to demonstrate solar power. That would make the biggest impression. If we combined solar power and a car, it would be impressive. And it was much more successful than we thought [it would be]. The car went all over the world. All of a sudden, International Rectifier became well known.
EE Times: So now we're talking about green engineering and power management. In terms of power generation, there's a debate as to whether it should be solar, wind or nuclear.
Eric Lidow: The automotive [industry] should use more electrical power than it uses now and reduce our dependency on the supply of oil. The hybrid car is just the beginning. The hybrids will become more electrical and less gasoline-powered. And eventually they'll become all electric, a process [that] I think will take 15 years. But we're on the way.
EE Times: Everyone's talking about solar power, giving tax credits for it, yet it's an inefficient technology.
Eric Lidow: Very inefficient, and I think it has a very limited future, because producing the solar cells takes a lot of energy, too. If we consider energy required to produce the cells and the cost of installing them and storing the electrical energy that they provide, we have a delicate balance.
EE Times: Should the United States be thinking about nuclear power?
Eric Lidow: Yes. This is the real answer, the logical answer. It's the cleanest form of energy, and there are countries like France that have nothing else and they're doing very well. We just had a very wrong response, a knee-jerk response, to some of the accidents that happened. This is unavoidable. Atomic energy will be the main producer of electric energy in the future.
EE Times: You've witnessed electronics' progression from radio up to the computer era.
Eric Lidow: The most practical one is the cellular telephone. It's made communication so easy. I'm very impressed by the advances in computers, but there's a tremendous danger to our education because of the availability of computers and the place they take in children's lives. They're spending too much time in front of the screen and not enough time with other people. You don't want Internet kids growing up to be antisocial, because that's what happening, I pity those people who try to get married on the Internet.
EE Times: Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has written about disruption, the notion that a successful vendor gets so focused on its customer base that it gets disrupted by a technology that's different and not as robust. You have avoided that.
Eric Lidow: We avoided that, but we did have diversion. Sometime in the early '60s we thought that the [health care] situation in this country should be improved. I was appalled by the very high cost of drugs. The selling price and manufacturing cost were totally unrelated. We [started] manufacturing tetracycline, an antibiotic. We were the largest generic manufacturer at the time. This was very painful, because pharmaceutical companies are a very tough group. We [made] one of the first defibrillators used in a hospital. [But] it was very difficult to work with doctors--more difficult than with semiconductor people.