Who was Jim Williams?

Jim Williams - Jim Williams' contributions to EDN - EDN

Jim Williams was a legendary analog circuit designer, as could be said for Bob Widlar, born in the US in 1948. Jim helped found and expand the very highly regarded Linear Technology and thrived as a technical writer authoring over 350 publications on analog circuit design!

The Early Days

Jim was exposed to Electronics from his neighbor who was an electronics enthusiast that would show Jim these beautiful test instruments in his garage known as oscilloscopes, that were made by Tektronix. Soon after Jim became passionate about electronics, especially test equipment and this was his foundation for what was to come. What's also interesting to note is that Jim never completed any formal education at college, he is completely self-taught and instead went to MIT as a lab tech that built hardware for scientists while keeping the test equipment up and working.

It was through learning and appreciating the design of test equipment which made Jim one of the best analog engineers in the world.

The Tektronix 547 - Jim's favourite scope

Jim wrote his first article for EDN while at MIT entitled "Heavy-duty power supply regulates either voltage, current, or power" which can be found here. On inspection you will see Jim's excellent attention to detail while leaving commentary throughout describing the fundamentals in an intuitive way sprinkled with wit such as "carry a crowbar for protection".

National Semiconductor Corporation

Jim worked for National Semiconductor Corporation from 1979 to 1982 within the Linear Integrated Circuits Group working as an application engineer writing at least 21 application notes.

Linear Technology

Several engineers from National Semiconductor left to form Linear Technology but Jim wasn't one of them as this was before they had any chips with Jim wondering what they would need an application engineer for? However, that soon changed and Jim joined Linear Tech as their first application engineer. Bob Dobkin, the CEO of Linear Tech encouraged Jim to write about Linear Tech's parts and Jim not only did that, writing 62 app notes, but he also highlighted his expertise for analog design where he stressed the importance of truly understanding the underlying concepts expressed in a way which never talked down to readers or came across as boasting his abilities, he was humble.

My personal favourite app note from Jim Williams is AN-25 "Switching regulators for poets: A gentle guide for the trepidatious" which can be found here.

Jim also made a handful of videos at Linear Tech such as the one below on the topic of "Diode Turn-On Time Induced Failures in Switching Regulators":

Analog circuit design is art

Jim Williams always regarded analog circuit design as art (which I completely agree with!). He would often point out that truly understanding how a circuit works comes from an intuitive and poetic approach instead of mathematical equations written on a board. He went the full way with this and built working circuits that are aesthetically pleasing such as those shown below.

Circuit art by Jim Williams - Remembering Jim Williams, 5 years later - EDN

Jim the prankster

One day Fran Hoffert, a co-worker of Jim's, walked into the office and noticed the clock was slow by an hour and 5 minutes, he and his colleagues knew someone was messing with it which they fixed but then they noticed it was running backwards! They even went so far as to callup the manufacturer of the clock for them to say it was impossible. They then got the clock replaced and setup a sneaky circuit at the back consisting of a battery, microswitch, 2s time delay and light bulb so anyone who tampered with it again would get a nice light bulb to the face! The next day the noticed the clock was slightly off to the side on the wall so they want up to have a dummy grenade drop down with a note of a finger which said "This is the only picture you will get from me. How stupid do you think I am". Only years later did Jim finally admit that it was him :)

He also famously left the last page of AN-25 blank until being asked to add content for which his reply was the comic below (also a trademark for his app notes):

AN-25 comic - AN-25

Words from others that knew Jim

"He never tried to impress you with his math or his intellect. He didn’t make things complicated so you would think he was smart. He made things look simple. That is why he was brilliant." - Paul Rako, Technical Editor, EDN

"Jim's legacy is timeless. Yes, he made his name when application circuits were made with discretes, often dead-bug or air-wired, which is nearly impossible today. Little was simulated, none required software programming. Yet even today, you can read his articles and feel the joy he brought to his work. He had an amazing ability to teach and his style worked no matter what your background or level of experience. He drew you in and made you smile. Like a good movie where you stay and watch the credits, you read every word of Jim's application notes. Even the appendix and the cartoon. He thought about every detail – that every solder joint is a thermocouple (and he would deliberately slice a trace and solder it back together to balance another joint); that every transistor had its quirks and you needed to get to know them; that every wire is an antenna; and especially that measurement was as important as the circuit itself. He taught us so much more than how his circuits work.” - Todd Nelson, mixed signal applications engineering manager, Linear Tech

"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 been friends with Jim for 35 years when he died. It was a great loss and I still feel it. Jim loved teaching as well as electronics. With new products at Linear Tech, Jim would undertake to teach people about the products as well as the techniques for testing that kind of product. Sometimes this resulted in huge app notes with many tutorial sections. Jim got many calls from students with questions. Not only would he answer the questions, he would send them parts to work with. His love of circuits and teaching show up in the number of app notes he has done. Jim said he had the best job in the world: ‘I get to work on circuits and they pay me too!’” - Bob Dobkin , co-founder and CTO, Linear Tech

Further Recommendations

Embedded below is an excellent video by the Computer History Museum remembering the life of Jim Williams.

A list of all his excellent contributions he made to EDN can be found here.

And finally a video of Jim repairing a friends Tektronix scope shortly before he passed.

What a legend indeed.