Editor's note: Readers of EE Times, EDN, Planet Analog and other UBM Electronics publications were shocked and saddened this week to learn of the death of Jim Williams, the legendary analog IC designer and staff scientist at Linear Technology Corp. for more than 30 years. Williams is remembered by readers not only for his design skills, but as a teacher, writer and mentor to many engineers over the years. The following is an excerpt from Paul Rako's obituary for Williams, which was first posted on EDN's website, as well as an collection of photos celebrating Williams' life.
Jim Williams, the world-famous analog guru that helped found and expand Linear Technology, passed away at 10:15pm pacific time Sunday night. He suffered a massive stroke on early Friday morning, June 10. He was 63 years old.
Jim had just returned to work from a well-deserved vacation. Jim was excited about the next two articles of his scheduled to be published in EDN, one on a sine wave oscillator currently slated for August 11, 2011. The last article Jim wrote for EDN will be his brilliant description of developing a 100A electronic load currently scheduled for the September 22, 2011 issue.
Jim was really pleased with that last article. Several times he confided that it was one of the few technical projects that "everything just worked perfect." He said it was rare to have all the parts of a complex design go so well. When he told me this I couldn't help but think how his awesome talent had to play a part in the ease of the design.
Now that talent is lost to the analog community, and we are all impoverished by the loss. Jim had a background that was as interesting as the circuits he designed. He did not have credentials. Indeed, he took one semester of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Jim's good friend Len Sherman relates, "Jim had a wealthy upbringing during his childhood. His dad was a banker in Detroit during the peak of the US auto industry. His dad cut him off with no money once he dropped out of Wayne State. It wasn't personal, but his dad felt it was necessary for Jim to earn his own way if he wasn't going to complete college."
Photo credit: Len Sherman.
Jim goofing off back in his MIT days.
Growing up, Williams had a neighbor that loved electronics and would show Jim those big beautiful Tektronix oscilloscopes in the garage. Jim soon developed a passion for electronics and especially for test equipment. His passion led him to MIT. Not as a student, but as a lab tech that built hardware for the scientists and kept a whole slew of sophisticated test equipment working. Jim related how the department head once told him it would be impossible to fix a certain piece of equipment. That's all Jim had to hear. It took about three weeks, but Jim got it fixed.
Test equipment has to be more advanced than the circuits it tests. So learning the design of test equipment turned Jim into one of the best analog engineers in the world. He never confused description with understanding. When he would give seminars on how to design piezoelectric transformer lamp drivers, he pointed out that professors who fill the blackboard with math really don't know how a circuit works. Jim knew that the math can describe how a circuit works but understanding how it works was a much more fundamentally intuitive and poetic endeavor.
Perhaps people are surprised to learn the age of the equipment he used to make his discoveries and investigations. No one can discount the caliber of his work based on the visual appearance of his bench. One must remember that it isn't the tools and equipment that make technology happen but the skilled operator of those tools, be they modern or vintage. Like his equipment, he was a classic, and will be missed for who he was and what he knew.
Simple-he loved old hardware, which means he bought them or had them gifted to him used, which meant the previous user had mistreated them. Sorta like scars due to battle but really due to carelessly not turning the intensity down when not being used. Digital screens can't earn such scars.
At EDN magazine we often joked that we could tell a Jim Williams scope-screen photo from all others because of the "burn marks" on the scope face or defects in the scope's plastic graticle. You can see a good example of Jim's trademark scope images at: http://www.edn.com/file/14454-Figure_5.pdf. Sadly, whenever I talked with Jim I forgot to ask him what caused those dots in his scope photos. We'll never know. I will greatly miss Jim Williams.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.