Remembering Jim Williams, 5 years later

-June 10, 2016

Famous analog engineer Jim Williams died of a stroke on June 12, 2011. Jane Reiser Williams, Jim’s sister, told me, “I need to take a moment to swallow and breathe; can it really be 5 years since I lost my darling brother? It seems like yesterday and yet it also is, painfully, forever.”

Jim was best-known as the most popular contributed writer at EDN. He did many of those articles as part of his duties as an application engineer at Linear Technology as well as National Semiconductor. His earliest articles were as a lab tech at MIT, and as an engineer with Arthur D Little consulting.

Len Sherman, senior scientist at Maxim Integrated Products recalls, ”My first job out of school was in Jim's MIT lab in the famous Building 20, now torn down. For a new EE grad like me, that lab was the perfect place to be. We re-purposed surplus electronics, fixed test equipment, built tons of equipment from scratch, and simply had a blast. Sometimes literally. Jim's lab was the real MIT education for myself and a bunch of other people. We worked, did projects, or just hung out. I can't imagine what my engineering life would have been like without that experience. I'm sure it would have been nowhere near as interesting.”

Despite Linear Tech making high-performance analog chips, Williams used classic test equipment, like vintage Tektronix oscilloscopes and old HP equipment. That may have been inspired from his work at MIT as a young man, keeping the lab equipment working and designing custom circuits. Paul Grohe, a friend and fellow application engineer at Texas Instruments notes, “Jim’s love of old hardware may be due in part to the fact that you can still fix those old scopes. The new stuff is full of hybrids and proprietary chips that can only be repaired at a factory service center.” When I visited Tek up in Portland, I made sure to get a Tektronix baseball cap from the marketing folks. I presented it to Jim later that month, and on August 14, 2009, Jim posed with the hat between his two favorite Tek scopes. It was probably not the hardware Tek marketing wanted to showcase, but hey, I put it down to brand awareness.

Fran Hoffart, a co-worker of Jim’s at both National Semi and Linear Tech observes, “Jim loved going to the monthly electronic flea market. He once said that he would pay more for non-working test equipment than a working one, this way he could figure out how it works and fix it. If a fellow engineer had some non-working test equipment, simply placing it near Jim’s bench would often result in it being repaired by the next morning.”

Williams’ lab area was so crowded with circuits, parts, and equipment he would enlist the aid of a chair for laying out proofs of his articles, app notes, or other documentation. His collection of app notes were collated into two best-selling books. That is pretty amazing in view of the fact that all of the articles were published on the EDN or Linear Tech website. Bob Dobkin, Linear CEO and a co-writer of the books, noted, “Jim wanted these books released. It was very difficult working on the books without him.”

 Image courtesy of Fran Hoffart.

One of Williams’ quirks was his love of working in shorts, which was casual even by Silicon Valley standards. Microsoft engineer Jon Dutra worked for Linear Tech years ago. He was in Williams’ office, talking about analog circuits, Jim’s favorite topic. Suddenly, Jim looked at his watch, uttered an epithet and ran to his office door. He dropped his shorts, grabbed a pair of long pants hanging behind the door and was pulling them on while hopping out the door. Dutra recalled Williams calling back over his shoulder “I have to go see [Linear CEO] Bob Swanson, and he really hates my shorts!” It was not just shorts he loved. Williams always wore boat shoes. Jim bought a pair of shoes and really liked them, so he immediately went right back and bought 10 pairs, presumably a lifetime supply.

Hoffart recalls, “Jim was also a prankster. One prank involved the lab wall clock. It would run fast one day, get replaced, then would run slow, get replaced again, then would run backwards. He didn’t reveal how he got it to run backwards until years later.” Williams confided to me that he carefully ground the pole shoes on the motor to make it run backwards.
Next: Jim’s lab

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