Analog guru Jim Williams dies after stroke
By Paul Rako, Technical editor - June 13, 2011
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.
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.
The fact that Jim loved to get his hands dirty, hacking on copper-clad and brandishing a soldering iron rather than instruct a tech, serves as a great example for generations of analog engineers. He taught us all that if you do the work yourself, you will achieve a far deeper understanding of the design that if you just tossed a schematic to some poor hapless technician. Bob Dobkin, founder of Linear Tech and the recipient of many of Jim's pranks notes, "Jim lived electronics. Electronics was his art, as was humor." Jim's mantra of building your own prototypes and testing them taught tens of thousands of engineers the right way to get a working design off a sheet of paper and into production.
Jim was a modest and humble man, for one so brilliant. His joining Linear Technology in the earliest days also made him wealthy, but it was hard to tell from his manner. He never acted stuck up, despite his money and his talent. He loved to talk to fellow engineers. Engineers would write EDN asking for Jim's e-mail address. We told them that Jim didn't have e-mail. He also didn't have a cell phone or voicemail. But Jim would pick up the phone any time he was at work. EDN would supply Jim's phone number to these interested readers, and most felt they could not impose on such a great man with a phone call. We had to assure them it was alright to call Jim. He always welcomed hearing from a fellow engineer. Jim would point out that he would learn a lot from the engineers that called him, and that he loved to hear from them, no matter how simple the problem.
Jim had a window office with a door, but the office phone was almost always forwarded to the lab bench where he loved to spend most of his time. Williams respected the best in people-their ability. He didn't care what country you came from, what car you drove, what breakfast cereal you liked. If you loved analog, that was all Jim needed to know. He was approachable and friendly, no matter what the situation.
In the late 1970s, Jim worked in the Boston area for several years, working for Teledyne Philbrick and consulting at Arthur D Little and Consultek. He did some work for Analog Devices. Dave Kress, director of technical marketing at Analog Devices, remembers, "Jim worked as a consultant for Analog Devices while he was at MIT and before he went to the west coast. He wrote several major pieces for us."
In the late 1970, the action in electronics was in Silicon Valley. Williams then went to work at National Semiconductor. Kress notes, "We tried to get him to stay in Boston, but the call of the West and all that action was too much to beat." When several National engineers left to form Linear Technology, Jim didn't go with them. He explained, "They didn't have any chips yet, what did they need an applications engineer for?" Eighteen months later that situation had changed, and Jim went over to Linear Tech as their first apps person. Kress recalls, "Jim and I were good friends, even at a distance and working for competitors, but we never personally felt competitive. He was extremely creative and very productive."
Jim's effect was profound. Alan Martin, himself a brilliant engineer, read Williams' articles. That instilled a love of analog in Alan. Alan soon moved from Colorado to Silicon Valley, and took at job at Linear Tech so he could work with Jim on a daily basis. Alan, too, has a passion for fixing test equipment. He and Jim would often challenge one another to troubleshoot an especially difficult problem. Alan recounts that late one Friday, Jim threw down the gauntlet as he left for home. "You would have to be one heck of an engineer to fix this thing ..." Alan had it working by Sunday night. Jim was impressed.
Jim had that effect on every engineer around him. He made you want to do the best work you could. He made you want to solve the intractable problems. He made you want to not just get it working, but to get working with elegance. Jim helped set the standard for analog engineers the world over. The whole world will miss his technical brilliance and his warm personality. I know I will.
Donations in Jim Williams' memory can be made to:
The Parkinson's Institute
675 Almanor Avenue
Sunnyvale, CA 94085
Also see this photo gallery of Jim Williams presented by EE Times.
Remembering Jim Williams
Engineers come out to share their favorite memories of Jim. We encourage our readers to share their stories about Jim in the comments field below. (Please note that as more comments come in, existing comments are moved to a "talkback" page for this article that houses all comments posted. Click on any comment to see the full listing of comments.)
Jim's start at MIT is a colorful story. I started working in his lab in Building 20 at MIT in 1975. On the wall in the lab he had blue vinyl pouch in a frame on the wall. When I asked him about it, he said that when he came to MIT in 1968, to be where the "smart" people were, the only jobs he was offered were either as a janitor or mail boy at Draper Labs. He took the mail boy job figuring it would give him a chance to talk to people and see what was a going on. That the blue vinyl pouch on the wall was his mail carrier pouch from that first job. At the time he had no official credentials to do lab work at any level. But of course, Jim being Jim, it didn't take him long to talk himself into a technician's job working on the Apollo program. -Len Sherman was a student at MIT when Jim Williams was working there. He worked with Williams at National Semiconductor. Sherman currently works as senior scientist at Maxim Integrated Products.
The analog world has lost a uniquely gifted and genuine human being. Jim was always fun to be around. Regrettably, I saw Jim less frequently as I moved into executive management at LTC, but Jim never failed to brighten my day when I had the pleasure of visiting him in the lab. He always brought me back to the basics of what makes the analog business so unique.
Jim was always humble and down-to-earth, but he had the world's best understanding of the "messy" real-world aspects of analog design. Analog design never reaches an end - in pursuit of perfection there is a growing list of non-ideal limitations. That's what makes analog design so much fun, and that's where Jim excelled. He enjoying identifying those non-ideal parasitics and finding ways to outsmart them.
Jim's 3D breadboards looked like Rube Goldberg contraptions, and it was sometimes hard to believe they could actually work. But work they did, usually achieving levels of analog performance that no one else in the analog world could match.
Stories abound about Jim's pranks, but every once in a while the tables were turned. For several years my office was next door to Jim's, and I remember drilling a hole in a shared wall to mess with a huge functioning breadboard Jim proudly hung on the wall behind his desk. Jim was clearly frustrated by the intermittently malfunctioning circuit, but he was eventually victorious by tracing the wires through the wall into my office.
I'm sad to realize that Jim is no longer with us, but the analog word is a much better place because he enriched the lives of so many of us. -Dave Bell, president and CEO of Intersil
I am one of the lucky people who knew Jim as both a scientist and [an analog] brother. Jim was a very private person who had many profound insights. Jim and I met in the late 1980s when we were architecting the Apple Powerbook.
Jim always teased me that I f**ked him over by having him work on backlight circuits for 10 years. He got me back by suggesting I start BAM Labs five years ago. For more than 20 years Jim would come to my house every weekend for football or to just hangout, which really meant eating food that Siu wouldn't let him eat at home. His favorite was mac and cheese with a side of puffed cheetos and a few cokes. He then would play pool with his son Michael and me. Jim loved to eat almost as much as he loved Siu. There was never an excuse needed for Jim to eat. In fact, Jim would drag anyone he could to his favorite restaurant Sinola in Morgan Hill. We went hundreds of times and Jim always got the same thing: three beef tacos and a double rice.
Jim had the strangest eating habits, things were either meat or vegetables, vegetables were called enemies. Now, potato chips and corn were officially meat. Mac and cheese was meat, too. If you asked him to eat asparagus he would say, "Are you trying to kill me?"
Jim lived his life with strict rules, he had a very sensitive scale (100th/lb) in his bedroom and would weight himself every day. He would skip lunch if he was a bit over his goal. He invested and stuck to his plan. He was honest to a fault and you couldn't find anyone alive with more integrity than Jim. The only time I would say that he wasn't completely honest was when he would tell a story too many times and it would get better every time.
Everyone knew Jim loved his circuits, but Siu is Jim's true love. He outwardly was stoic about his feelings, but with Siu everything was different. His affection for her broke his rules for No Public Affection. Jim would show how much he cared for his Siu by touching her nose and smiling like he was the luckiest geek there was.
After his first date with Siu he called up and told me that he didn't think about circuits all night. ... That was a big deal for Jim. Last week Siu dragged Jim to Hawaii, Jim complained about going for weeks.
When we got back I asked about the trip and he said it was great. ... He and Siu just spent time together.
Siu was Jim's first love, Michael was his second. Mike is his son who he taught to drive on his lap when Michael was 5. Having Michael grow with Jim's high integrity was a priority for Jim and difficult for any child. Michael is now 21 and Jim was so proud of what a nice young man Michael has become.
Jim was a very generous guy; he would always step up to help someone if he could. He found great joy in teaching, he loved to go to work on the weekend and help someone with a problem of teach someone about electronics. He'd pull his man purse out and take his stubby prehistoric mechanical pencil and try and write on a napkin without tearing the paper. He would whip out a circuit and then draw a cartoon to finish.
He wanted everyone to think he was eccentric, but he was really a gentle soul who I am going to miss forever. -Steve Young, CTO, BAM Labs
I had long discussions with Jim Williams about various things including analog and radio circuit design, life in general, and engineering in both Russia and the United States. Here are some thoughts about Jim based on my own observations for the last 12 years. Jim brought and enforced a culture of intuitive analog design at Linear Technology. This gave him a very strong following, both inside and outside the company. Jim's personality was a unique mix of "components." He could be sarcastic, almost cynical, while at the same time being very passionate and very sensitive.
To a great degree, Jim would not consider any engineering solutions that were outside of true, old-fashioned analog design. He also refused to use modern test equipment. Younger engineers, especially those working outside of Linear Tech may have a hard time understanding this. Jim did accept my help in taking some measurements with modern RF test equipment. I am sure many engineers inside and outside of Linear Tech will continue with Jim's tradition of intuitive analog design in their specific areas. -Vladimir A Dvorkin, RF applications engineering manager at Linear Technology
I can't say I was a close friend of Jim's, but from afar I also tracked and enjoyed his writings. I learned from them, way before we finally met. He is indeed one of those people that make other folks' life better. I appreciated that we shared the love and sublimeness of settling time measurements. He appreciated other peoples' passions. The best prank would be his recovery. -Barry Harvey, design manager at Intersil
I first met Jim Williams on the shop floor of my consulting business. It was back in the late 1980s. I had been reading EDN magazine from cover to cover, knowing I had to have really good technical skills if I expected to be a consultant. In one of Jim's articles, his bio mentioned he collected old scientific instruments. My brother had given me a dual-pan balance he salvaged from the dumpster at the University of Toledo. It was an old unit in a wooden case with glass panels. It had a little gold chain that you would raise and lower with a wheel to fine-tune the weight. I called Jim up at Linear Tech and asked if he wanted it. He said he liked that kind of stuff, but he didn't think it was right to just take it. I explained that my brother gave it to me, and that I wasn't really giving it to him for free. The bargain was that he would have to chat with me for a bit when he picked it up at my shop.
Jim said fine and we arranged a time. I asked my mentor, Big John Massa, to come, as well. I knew John and Jim would enjoy each other's company. Jim must have gabbed with us for over an hour. We talked about electronics and Detroit, where we both had lived. I asked him about how National Semiconductor could let the whole Linear Tech crowd walk out of the building and start a new company. Jim explained that National, like most companies, was pursuing the big "G" -- Growth. Back when Linear Tech spun off of National, digital was the 20 billion dollar market and analog was one or two billion. Jim said he could understand how National would pursue the growth and try for a slice of that big digital market.
I also remember that Jim gave me a razzing about my owning a bunch of Harley Sportsters. Harley's reputation was in the tank back then and they had terrible reliability. Then later in the conversation, it came out that Jim drove a Jaguar XKE. Talk about poor reliability, I teased Jim about the Lucas "Prince of darkness" electrical system in his Jaguar. We all had a laugh about that.
I would see Jim at conferences and technical seminars. I remember his brilliant presentation on making high-voltage power supplies using piezo transformers. He also gave some seminars about various Linear Tech parts. He was always gracious and he always remembered our conversation in my shop.
In 1998, I had a contract at Hewlett Packard designing diagnostic equipment for automobile service. I was having a heck of a time trying to make a solid-state variable attenuator front end. I was using multiplexers and variable gain amplifier and all kinds of other approaches. The hardest thing was the whole front end had to withstand high-voltage faults. On top of that, the customer wanted 1dB accuracy over 10 MHz. I had spent weeks on the problem. Finally I figured I had to consult an analog great. So I called Jim up at Linear Technology. I was a little sheepish, since this time I was going to be asking for free consulting. Jim patiently listened to my problem and my extensive description of the system. He asked a few questions. He asked what I had tried and listened patiently as I described all my false starts. He paused for a few seconds. Then he asked, "Have you ever used a Tektronix oscilloscope?" I said sure, there was one a few feet away in my office. Jim then asked, "What happens when you twist the vertical attenuator knobs in that 'scope?" I instantly saw where he was going. I smiled and said, "I hear relays clicking as I change attenuation levels." "Yup," Jim said, "Expensive little high-bandwidth relays." Jim then politely explained that if Tektronix could not make a broadband solid-state attenuator, maybe I should not be trying. I understood the implications and changed the design to remove the need for variable attenuation in the front end.
Another long period went by and I did not see Jim much. Then I took a job at National Semiconductor as an application engineer. I worked in the amplifier group, with Bob Pease and Paul Grohe. It seemed everyone knew Jim or used to work with him. I heard stories of the pranks Jim used to play on co-workers (see "Pranking friends co-workers and bosses"). I would see Jim at the Electronics Flea Market that I had started attending with my friends. Jim and I would cross paths more and more. Then I met Alan Martin, who had just come to work for National from Linear Tech. He knew Jim well and I got so see Jim when he was hanging out with Alan.
Then I took the job at EDN. Then I got to see Jim every month. He still remembered me from the 1980s, when we hung out in my shop. Soon it seemed like I was talking to Jim every week. Slowly but surely, we were becoming friends. I would show Jim some of the circuits I had designed as a consultant, knowing he would appreciate the things I got working. He in turn would show me some of the things he was working on. Many times this was not for publication in EDN, it was just Jim helping out a customer. The last few months of his life, Jim would call me once or twice a week. Sometimes it was to talk about and article he had coming out in EDN. Other times it was just to say hi. I would hang up after talking to him and just shake my head at the Cinderella nature of it all. Here was the guy that taught me analog design in EDN magazine, and now I work for EDN and Jim Williams is calling me up to say hi. What a blessing. Jim's friendship and teaching was a precious blessing.
I spoke with Jim on the fateful Thursday when he had his stroke. He was excited about the next two articles he was getting published in EDN. He talked about his recent vacation and why it was important to take a break now and then. He assured me that he would see me Saturday at the Silicon Valley electronic flea market. I told him I had all kinds of things to tell him, and I would see him there. Then I said I had to get back to work and he let me go. He had his stroke that night. A few days later, he was gone.
Will there ever be another Jim Williams? A passionate self-taught engineer that sets the bar for the entire community? I like to think so. If you went to the Embedded Systems Conference in Silicon Valley this spring, you could have seen Jeri Ellsworth's keynote speech. Jeri, too, is self-taught and passionate. She too is teaching by example and helping everyone she meets. Heck, the girl has a diffusion oven in her garage. Tom Lee, a professor at Stanford introduced Jeri to Jim at the e-flea market in 2011. I only wish that Jim could be around to get to know Jeri, they would have become close friends. So rest in peace, Jim Williams. And rest assured that the passion and love you have for technology has passed to the next generation, and the ones after that. But still, Jim was a unique analog guru and he will be impossible to replace. I will miss him, especially when I pick up my copy of EDN magazine. I will be reminded how we first met, with him teaching me the deepest darkest secrets of analog design. Oh what a sad, sad day this is. -Paul Rako, analog engineer and EDN technical editor
EDN's archive of Jim's contributions can be found here.
Editor's note: EDN thanks all of its readers who have shared their favorite stories and memories of Jim in the below comments field. We encourage you to continue to do so. This outpouring is a true testament to Jim's life and work. As more comments come in, existing comments are moved to a "talkback" page for this article that houses all comments posted. Click on any comment to see the pages of comments about Jim.