Bob Widlar cherry-bombs the intercom speaker

-March 02, 2011

I am writing up an article about analog pranks for April 1st. Many analog engineers know the story of National Semiconductor’s IC design guru Bob Widlar. National Semiconductor announced it was cutting back on lawn maintenance back in the 1980s, in order to save money. Widlar bought a sheep, chained it in the front lawn and called a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Point made, with style.

So I have been in contact with Bob’s brother Jim regarding another great Widlar prank that I will talk about in April. So Jim mentions a third Widlar prank, well wanton destruction of company property. Widlar’s office was near Pierre Lamond’s. This is back 40 year ago. And there was an intercom speaker in the ceiling right between Wildar’s office and Pierre’s. I think Pierre was a vice president or director at the time. He was also kind of a control freak and fastidious and proper and well, just ask any Silicon Valley analog engineer about Pierre. Wildar hated the speaker. So he started to sabotage it so it did not work. I will let Jim Widlar pick up the story, from his perspective in the facilities department.

  • Brother Bob and Dave Talbert had the next set of offices from Pierre Lamond’s in Building #3, 2950 San Ysidro Way. There was a PA speaker mounted in the hallway ceiling tile between Bob’s and Pierre’s offices.  The paging bothered Bob and he would ask me to disconnect the speaker. When Pierre would not hear the constant melody of the paging system he would call Alex, one of the National Semiconductor maintenance personal. As soon as Bob heard the paging he would ask me to disconnect it again, and then Pierre would call Alex.
  • After a few cycles of this nonsense Pierre heard scuffling in the hallway, ran to the hall, and found Bob stepping off one of the office chairs under the speaker. Pierre responded with an “AH-HU” since he had just solved the paging system mystery.  Bob in his quiet tone responded with a much louder “AH-HU” grabbed the chair and returned to office as the cherry bomb detonated.  I believed we replaced the speaker with a new 2X4 ceiling tile with no openings.     
  • Today Sunday 27-Feb-2011 is twenty years since his passing. Thanks for keeping his memories alive.

And no, this is not an urban legend. I was over at Linear Tech yesterday and both Jim Williams and Fran Hoffart verified the cherry bomb story. He said Widlar told Lamond he should probably stand back. Lamond knew why a few seconds later.

So Jim Widlar also filled in some important facts about the sheep-on-the-lawn story. He said his brother did not really buy the sheep. He just sorta, borrowed it from a neighbor. I have had several people tell me that Widlar took the sheep with him to the local bar, Marchetti’s, and gave it to the bartender. Jim also fills in some background:

  • Brother Bob never bought the sheep.  He borrowed the said sheep from friend John Weiss’s neighbor in Morgan Hill, Emmett Slaughter. The only problem Emmett didn’t know it was loaned out.  I believe after the animal went missing in action and the photo was spotted in the Mercury News, a settlement was made.

Finally, in honor of Widlar’s passing 20 years ago, here are some exclusive pictures from Linear Technology analog guru Fran Hoffart. None of these have been published before so enjoy.


I like this picture much better than the famous one from the Mercury News. You can see Widlar’s car parked on the National Semiconductor lawn, to facilitate getting the sheep out of the back seat. You have to admit, the grass was pretty long.


Here is a classic portrait- an analog guru and his sheep. Well not his sheep, actually, the one he stole from a co-worker’s neighbor.


Here is a bunch of National Semi guys from 1970. I recognize Bob Pease with a brown beard-but not a lot of other people. Widlar is third from right. L to R, Dennis O’Neal Minneo Yamatake, Don Bergren, Carl Nelson in the short shorts, Jim Hulligan in teal shirt, unknown with unknown behind him, then Bob Pease, Bob Widlar, Bob Dobkin,  Pete Lefferts is behind Dobkin. Pete designed the LM3909 flasher and the great LM3914/15/16 bar-graph LED driver chips.


Here is Widlar with Pease, and Mineo Yamatake. Shawn Hurley- a process guy now retired is at the far right. I don’t recognize the guy in the blue tie, neither does Fran. [Update, Tim Regan tells me it is Harry Holt, now at Analog Devices.]


This is my favorite, Widlar with Mineo and Dobkin, in and analog engineer’s natural environment. Unlike modern child-IC designers, Widlar spent a lot of time at the bench, so he really understood silicon, as opposed to understanding carpeting, cubicles, UNIX, and SPICE.


Here is Bob with Don Bergren the test manager of the ALIC (advanced linear integrated circuits) group.


Here is Debbie from the mask design department, Widlar and Don Bergren.


Here is a young Widlar at Ken Kraft’s home. That’s Bob’s telescope (Jim tells me he still has it in Colorado). Also pictured is Ken‘s wife Ginny, Ken retired up in Paradise California. Fran tells me the picture is circa 1970.


OK now the adult section, here is Widlar giving the one-finger salute, not uncommon…….


…….as we see him doing it again in this picture.


And here is nappy young Widlar, in a suit no less.


And here he is as a mature analog great; I wonder what was in the Coke cup? Jim Widlar tells me his sister is a bit upset that the story is being promulgated that Bob drank himself to death. It turns out that most of the Widlar men died young, due to heart ailments. Jim is the exception, still going strong. In fact when Bob Widlar died, he had stopped drinking and was trying to stay healthy. His heart gave out as he was jogging up the steep streets in Puerta Vallarta, where he had moved to while still consulting to Linear Tech and National Semi.

In any event, Bob Widlar, analog great, RIP. It’s been 20 years and we still think of him. Any time you use an op amp or comparator or band-gap reference, you should think of Bob too. His LM10is still a remarkable part and Bob Pease told me Widlar worked on it in 1977.

 PS: The only time Bob Pease lost his temper with me was when I mispronounced Widlar’s name. When you only read it, its easy to do. It is not Whed-lar. It is Wide-lar.

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