During the recent DesignCon of January 2013 engineering students expressed their desire for role models. I do not believe there is a shortage of role models so much as a lack of introducing role models to them. I do not pretend to know of all role models, but I certainly believe that people like Jim Williams, Bob Pease and Bob Widlar are among the present day role models of analog electrical engineering. Unfortunately, they are now all deceased.
Jim Williams began as an engineering technician and basically taught himself enough to become a well-respected engineer. He wrote over 350 publications about analog circuit design, including 5 books, 83 application notes, and over 125 articles for EDN magazine.
Bob Pease, an MIT graduate, was an analog electronics Guru known by just about everyone who worked with analog electronics. He was known for his wit and dry humor as well as his acumen for analog circuit design. Bob was not afraid to consult with others on problems that held him up, even though he could find his answer if he thought about it long enough. I was flattered that he sometimes came to me for advice on data converters (analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters). For a long time Bob Pease published a column in Electronic Design magazine entitled “What’s all this [blank] stuff, anyhow?” (substitute the [blank] with a variety of things).
Robert John (Bob) Widlar, another electrical engineer, was a pioneer of analog integrated circuit design. He invented the basic building blocks of analog ICs such as the Widlar bandgap voltage reference the Widlar output stage, and the Widlar current source. Bob Widlar, together with David Talbert, created the first mass-produced operational amplifier ICs (μA702 and μA709), the first integrated voltage regulator IC (LM100), the first operational amplifier employing full internal compensation (LM101), field-effect transistor (LM101A), and super-beta transistors (LM108). Each of Widlar's circuits had at least one feature which was far ahead of all other circuits of the time. It is largely because of Widlar and Talbert that their employers, Fairchild Semiconductor and National Semiconductor, became the leaders in analog integrated circuits. I know very little about David Talbert, but Widlar and Talbert worked closely together and the growth of National Semiconductor was due almost entirely to their designs.
Alan Turing’s work is what made possible today’s computers. He is the one who came up with the binary architecture, as well as much of computer theory.
German inventor Nicolaus Otto developed the four-stroke engine which sparked the development of the motor car, or automobile. Despite having developed the engine, people such as Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz made practical applications of the technology, forever changing how people move all over the world.
Archimedes is the one who came up with the simple yet clever idea of determining an object’s volume by measuring the amount of water it displaced. Other inventions of his include levers and pulleys, the catapult, and the Archimedean Screw, a device used to raise water for irrigation or mining.
Nikola Tesla’s inventions include fluorescent lighting, the Tesla coil, the induction motor, and 3-phase electricity. He developed the AC generation system comprised of a motor and a transformer.
James Watt’s improvement (not invention) of the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution. The watt unit of power is named after James Watt. He is credited for measuring the power of his steam engine: his test with a strong horse resulted in his determination that a “horsepower” was 550 foot-pounds per second. Subsequent calculation by Watt resulted in one horsepower equaling 746 watts.
And don’t forget Henry Ford, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
There are noticeable similarities among great engineers outside of the obvious drive and ambition. They also possess an unwavering desire and a passion for engineering. What makes a great engineer is not just having a deeper understanding of a particular subject matter but also vision, drive and a create-the-best-the-world-has-ever-seen type of an attitude. These attributes can not be learned in school but are learned only by years of dedication and perseverance. Mastering these attributes and applying them to an idea or a project is what makes one a great engineer. Remember this as you look for and study role models.