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Analog engineering legend Bob Pease killed in car crash

-June 20, 2011

Analog guru Bob PeaseAnalog guru and industry legend Bob Pease was killed when his car left the road Saturday afternoon as he was leaving a memorial service for his friend and fellow analog expert Jim Williams, who died Sunday, June 12.  Bob was driving his beloved 1969 Volkswagen Beetle at the time of the accident. He was 70 years old.

Bob had left his office at National Semiconductor late in the day Saturday, no doubt distraught by the loss of his comrade Jim Williams. By the time Bob arrived at the memorial service most  attendees had left. The service for Jim Williams was at the Mountain Winery, a music venue in the hills outside Saratoga California. Leaving the venue, in the steep descent and curvy roads, Bob's car missed a turn and left the road. He may have suffered a heart attack or stroke. He was killed instantly, around 5:45pm. Bob is survived by his wife Nancy, two sons, Benjamin and Jonathan, and three grandchildren.

Bob was loved by the analog community. After getting a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, Bob worked at Philbrick Researches, designing vacuum tube amplifiers and voltage-to-frequency converters. He considered working at Analog Devices, in the Boston area, but instead came out to Silicon Valley to work at National Semiconductor. He lived in San Francisco with his wife Nancy, in part so his sons could avail themselves of the choir venues where they loved to sing.

Starting at National Semiconductor in 1976, Bob ultimately became a face of the company. This was partially due to his participating in the analog seminars that National put on every few years. Bob would travel to a different city every day, for months, teaching analog engineers the secrets of good design. These tours included Europe, India, and China. Indeed, when Bob showed up at a Chinese meeting hall in 2004, the fire marshals had to intervene since almost 700 engineers came to hear what he had to say.

Pease was very humble for someone who had written 200 "Pease Porridge" articles, become an expert in bandgap voltage references, written the acclaimed book "Troubleshooting Analog Circuits," and won a Certificate of Merit from the Jesse H Neal Awards Committee of American Business Publications in 1992. He designed more than 20 integrated circuits and held 21 patents.

Bob let his work speak for itself. If he had a fault, it was that he never told his bosses how much work he was doing. He would drive down from San Francisco to National's Sunnyvale campus in his 1969 Beetle at about 9:30 or 10:00am to avoid the traffic. He would then stay until 7:00 or 8:00pm working in the lab and in his notoriously messy office. What many people did not know is that Bob was working for National from his house in San Francisco, as well. He would get up at 5:30 or so, have breakfast and start answering e-mail at 6:30. This allowed him to help dozens of National customers before he even stepped into his office.

National kept Bob on as staff scientist long past his 65th birthday. In 2009 they offered him an extremely generous retirement package and then hired him back as a contractor. Pease spent time at National working on the Saturday that he died. He was still writing his monthly column at Electronics Design  and writing Design Ideas for EDN, as well as offering comments on its content.

Bob has a legacy as one of the greatest analog engineers in history due to his unique experiences. These days some analog engineers design ICs using Spice and UNIX, while other engineers do system-level work on boards and circuits. Bob was the rare analog creature that had designed analog functions with tubes and discrete circuits, as well as using rubylith masking materials to design ICs, as well as apply those ICs to system-level problems. This gave him a unique outlook on analog design. Like Bob Widlar and analog greats from the past, Bob Pease could think about the physics underlying the device. This was true whether the device was a silicon chip or a vacuum tube.

Bob had intimate knowledge of what was going on inside the chip. That let him do brilliant work when he used the chip in a board-level circuit. When I worked with him at National, he walked past my lab bench where I had an oscilloscope showing the temperature of a laser driver chip as it heated and cooled. "Oh look," Bob said, "You can see at least three time-constants as the die cools off." Puzzled, I asked, "What do you mean Bob, this is temperature, not a voltage response, how can there be time constants?" He patiently explained that temperature flow has time-constants just like electronics. He pointed to the three slopes in the temperature response. "See, this first one is the dominant one. It is heat flowing out the die-attach paddle and into the circuit board. Then he pointed to the second slope, "This one is probably heat going out through the bond wires." Lastly, he pointed at the third slope and said "This slow one is heat going thought the plastic package, that is a slow phenomena, so you would expect it to come last." He pointed out there were probably more than just the three time constants, and it "would be fun" to study it further. Years later I based an entire EDN article, "Hot, cold, and broken:Thermal-design techniques,"  on his simple, off-handed comment.

Bob always had time to help fellow engineers. He was, by nature and disposition, a teacher. That is why he loved traveling on the analog seminar and why he willingly answered hundreds of e-mail every week. He was just as helpful to those he worked around as to those who worked at analog competitors. Siu Williams, wife of recently deceased Linear Technology staff scientist Jim Williams, called me in tears when she heard the news. She related how Bob would often stop by their house to give Jim some article he had written or an interesting part he found in his junk bin.

All that mattered to Bob was that you had an analog problem. Bob would spend hours helping a hobbyist or small customer of National. Bob did not care how many chips you bought or even if you were not using chips at all. He would spend time helping fellow engineers with transistor circuits that didn't have a single IC in them. All that mattered to Bob was that you needed help with tricky analog problem.

Bob did not suffer fools and he would not appease or mollify people he thought were being stupid, even if they were his managers. But if you came to him with a problem that you really were stuck on, and asked him where you went wrong, he was as patient as a saint and would never raise his voice or demean you. I was a decent engineer when I went to work with Bob, but by no means an amplifier expert. Bob taught me concepts like noise gain and cross-plot distortion measurements.

Bob could dive into the details of analog design, but he also had an uncanny ability to see the bigger picture. He was a great advocate of "back of the envelope" calculations-the quick calculations you could almost do in your head. They let you understand the general scope of the problem. He would walk up to engineer's offices where they were punching their calculators or trying to run Spice simulations. He would get the basic facts--microseconds, nanofarads, microhenries--then demonstrate how you could devise time constants just by taking the decades of magnitude away from one component and "walking it up" the decades of magnitude of other physical constants in the problem. While the engineer was still typing in data, Bob would say, "Look, it seems like the first lag, the dominant pole, will be at about 3 microseconds. You can see that will ..." and suddenly the general scope of the problem would become clear.

Bob's use of the words lag and lead demonstrated another interesting fact. Like most systems engineers, Bob thought and analyzed problems in the time domain, not the frequency domain. Most IC designers talk about poles and zeros and Bode Plots. Bob would translate these sometimes baffling concepts into simple delays. Rather than talk about low phase margin, a frequency-domain concept you need a network analyzer to see, Bob would talk about the ringing of a square wave in the time domain. This was a much more direct and intuitive approach for most engineers. Most every electrical engineer is more familiar with an oscilloscope than a network analyzer.

Bob's health was failing in the later years of his life. He had diabetes and had lost half of his foot to frostbite when he was trekking in New Hampshire one winter. That really slowed him down but it did not hurt his sense of humor. I was taking him and some National pals to lunch a year ago. Typical Bob, he got into the back seat of my Honda. I protested, we all did, and pointed out he would be more comfortable in the roomier front seat. "No, no," Pease said, "I only need half a foot." We couldn't contain our laughter, and that is just the way Bob wanted it.

It is a shame that Bob's mobility had become limited in his later years. Even back in his MIT days he was famous for sprinting up the stairs of the engineering buildings. It was his way to keep in shape. He had a two-story house in San Francisco and he used the stairs to keep in shape. He explained that before he went on one of his famous treks in Nepal, he would prepare by walking up and down the stairs in his house. He said when he was able to do it 150 times in rapid succession, he knew he could handle the thin mountain air of Nepal.

Bob had a concern for the environment long before it became fashionable. He would drive his old 1969 VW Beetle around, getting 30 to 40 miles per gallon even back in the go-go 1980s. This was the second old Beetle that Bob was putting miles on. The first, he almost accidentally made into a convertible. He was leaving the National Semiconductor parking lot late one evening. The security department had strung a chain up over the entrance, as was their custom after 11:00pm. The chain did not have a sign or any tell-tales on it. Bob totaled his little Beetle. He insisted National buy him a new car, which they did. I assume they were surprised when he bought a 1969 Beetle instead of a Mercedes. I asked if he ever considered suing National, he could have been killed. Bob responded, "Don't be ridiculous, it is not like they did it on purpose." That chain had big yellow signs on it from that week forward. I think that is all that Bob cared about, that National did something to keep it from happening to another employee. I also asked Bob why he did not go buy some expensive new car. He explained that he drove an old Beetle because that was exactly the car he wanted to drive. If he bought a Rolls Royce with National's money, he would have to drive it. He preferred his old Beetles. "I totaled a 1967 VW model, but bought a 1969 to replace it," he grinned. The replacement car already had 80,000 miles on it when Bob bought it.

Then there was Pease's famously cluttered office. Bob said that he used the chronological method of filing. The older the paper was, the lower down in the pile he would look for it. Stories abound of engineers going into Bob's office and asking for some obscure document, and Pease would just wheel around and pull it out from one of the dozens of piles of paper. One National alumni, related how he went into Bob's office needing a bond-out diagram for one of Bob's old chips. Bob wheeled, dug deep, and delivered. The engineer took the drawing and came back a week later to give it back to Bob. As he talked he noticed Bob put it on top an entirely different pile of paper. The engineer waited six months. Then he went back and asked for the same bond-out diagram. To his astonishment, Bob wheeled around, and went down about 4 inches, the depth that accumulated in the six months, and once gains presented the document. Pease may have been messy, but he knew where things were.

When Jim Williams passed away just a week ago, I wrote that he will be impossible to replace, and the same goes for Bob. But that is not to say that the world will go lacking for brilliant analog engineers. We still have Bonnie Baker and Howard Johnson helping out here at EDN. Dave Van Ess is doing great work over at Electronic Design magazine. If you take time to hang around the younger engineers, you will meet fine young men like my protégé Francis Lau, as well as Bob Pease's good friends, application engineers Paul Grohe and Alan Martin. Over at Maxim there is Eric Schlaepfer and Len Sherman. Analog Devices has Dave Kress and dozens of young analog aficionados that will do work just as brilliant as the analog giants of yesteryear. If there is one message Bob's passing should convey it is that we should spend as much time teaching as we do designing and selling chips. Many people do analog design because it makes them a lot of money. Bob Pease did analog design because it was beautiful. So was he. Farewell my good friend, my mentor, and my standard of excellence.

 

Continue reading this story: Bob's friends remember him: EDN's Paul Rako and fellow engineers take time to share their favorite memories of Bob

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