Design Con 2015

Slideshow: Who is Tom Brown?

-October 25, 2012

I worked for Burr-Brown from 1988 until 2000 when Texas Instruments acquired Burr-Brown Corp. for $7.65B. I met Tom Brown many times, had discussions and dinners with him and he and his company helped make me the person and the engineer I am today.

I ask many people I know, younger than myself, what they know about Tom Brown. Many, many have said, "Who is Tom Brown?"

Well lest the newer generation forget about the man whose company put the first op amp on the moon in 1962 aboard the Ranger spacecraft; the man whose company made Texas Instruments the Analog giant it is today and the man who shaped the lives of so many people with whom he came in contact - let me show you in this slideshow, who Tom Brown is!

Burr-Brown was incorporated on May 8, 1956. Page Burr assumed the presidency and Tom became vice-president. The first Board of Directors meeting was held on May 10, 1956. Corporation law required four directors but BBRC only had three – Page, Tom and Tom's wife Helen. To solve the problem, one of Tom's friends, Joch C. Leonard, agreed to be present at the first board meeting and then resign five days later.

In 1957 Tom's garage was getting quite crowded and they decided to rent an office on East Speedway for $125/month. By the end of 1957 sales had increased from $1,579 to $7,205 (over 356%), however, BBRC still suffered a net loss that year of $9,815.

January of 1958 brought even more bad news – the resignation of Page Burr. He left and started a new company in New York called Circuit Research Company. He felt he had accomplished his goals with Burr-Brown, stating that at the time he had "pooled his resources across the country" and that it was time to move on. Page turned in his stock and Tom assumed the role of president.

When Robert Page Burr, co-founder of the company, passed away on Thursday, December 31, 1998, the Board of Directors issued the following resolution:

"Whereas, in 1956, Mr. Burr recognized at the beginning that transistors inherently had the reliability of a "short piece of bare copper wire." He further observed that there was a broad market for small packaged circuits providing more complex functions. From that start Burr-Brown developed the first commercial solid-state operational amplifier. The basic market strategy identified by Mr. Burr has remained unchanged for the past 40 years."

The "Famous" Hobson Sample:
The famous "Hobson Sample" was named after Larry Hobson and it was often referred to for many years after Larry retired. It refers to a sample of one. It is conclusive. The Standard Deviation is zero. Once you start testing more than one unit in any experiment you begin to introduce errors and the results of the experiment can be inconclusive.

This started as a joke, but for many years, when an engineer would see the very first result of an experiment, he or she would say, "Based on a Hobson Sample it looks like the problem is solved!" This all started one day, in the early days of Burr-Brown, when the sales manager was pressuring Larry to solve a particular sticky technical problem. Larry told him, "I've only tested one unit, but it looks pretty good so far!" Larry was actually a very thorough engineer, and he would always test a sufficient sample size to show that a problem was solved statistically, but this term seemed to "stick" and Larry took it with a wry smile.

An article recently appeared on the University of Arizona ECE website about the dedication of the Thomas R. Brown Conference Room. Although the article reads very well, there is an inaccuracy that it is implied. One of the statements in the article says: Tom Brown "truly understood the importance of that type of partnership: in recruiting and retaining the best faculty, in being able to give financial aid to the best students, and in building programs."

Well, this is not entirely true. Tom was not really into philanthropy. Sarah (Brown) Smallhouse and Mary (Brown) Bernal and the other trustees of the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation are very much into philanthropy. The next sentence is correct, "The Thomas R. Brown Foundations has endowed numerous professorships and student scholarships in the UA's College of Engineering, College of Science, and Eller College of Management."

Sarah's comment later in the article is also very true: "My father's success in business prospered because of the close relationship he developed with the UA. The UA gave Burr-Brown its competitive edge to rise to global excellence."

The bottom line is that Tom did understand the need to initiate a strong relationship with the University of Arizona in order to build a pipeline of talented engineers to build his company. The story being told in the conference room is certainly about Tom starting the company, but it is also about the many talented and innovative engineers that worked together with customers to develop creative solutions to problems in space exploration and medical imaging to digital audio, digital video and cell phones.

Tom's "quote panel" really summarizes this where he says, "While I take credit for founding the company, I do not deserve credit for its success" (see images to follow). Another important panel is the plaque on the outside of the room (also see images to follow). From my point of view, the purpose of the room is to inspire and motivate engineering students and professors to follow their entrepreneurial instincts, whether they start their own companies or join an existing company. It is to show how a company can work cooperatively with a university. Again, Tom said this pretty well in his quote.

Also, I need to state that we could not include all of the talented & creative people at Burr-Brown in the panels. There was simply not room to include all of the great stories. Undoubtedly, this means that some will be disappointed or feel that we did not "tell the entire story".

The following are some of the large images on each wall of the conference room depicting the birth and growth of Burr-Brown Corp., courtesy of Paul Prazak, Senior VP, Burr-Brown Corp. who headed up this effort to dedicate a memorial room fitting for the legacy of Tom Brown.

Next: Early days

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