Honoring great practitioners of a sport and other entertainers is pretty commonplace these days. The Baseball Hall of Fame may have started it all — founded by a hotel owner in 1939 to attract tourists to Cooperstown, NY.
Notable scientists and artists are enshrined (sometime entombed) in monumental buildings around the world. Westminster Abbey includes Ernest Rutherford, Isaac Newtown, William Blake, and Charles Dickens among a bunch of kings and politicians. In Paris, the Panthéon honors Marie Curie, Louis Braille, Voltaire, Rousseau, Émile Zola, and Victor Hugo.
For engineers, the civil authorities have not been so generous.
A few days ago, I thought I'd conduct a little research on the greats of analog design. This particular field of endeavor has only been around for six decades or so, but surely a handful of practitioners have already been identified and honored. It turns out that their greatness is likely to be interred with their bones.
I was surprised at the difficulty I had in finding a definitive list. It's not that engineers aren't recognized and honored from time to time. They receive awards from professional societies and are mentioned in books and magazine articles — but seldom if ever as a distinguished group.
Without a list that would make my job easy, I turned to another line of inquiry — the chips themselves. There are several websites chronicling semiconductor history with the most useful being “oral history” sites created and updated by individuals. The idea was to find the chips that made a big impact and trace them back to their designers. The low-hanging fruit includes:
- The first monolithic op-amp IC, the Fairchild μA702, designed in 1963 by Bob Widlar.
- The first IC logarithmic and antilogarithmic op amps and the first monolithic FET-input op amp, the Intersil ICL8007, designed by Dave Fullagar.
- The '555 timer, designed in 1971 by Hans Camenzind for Signetics.
It wasn't too long before I realized that there were several problems with my approach:
- It included only chip designers — designers of many elegant analog circuits such as Jim Williams (Linear Technology) and Bob Pease (National Semiconductor) would be left out.
- Results seemed biased toward engineers working in California. In other words, localization can sometime be a problem with oral histories.
- There was also a strong bias toward the early days of semiconductor technology. Great chips and great circuits are still being designed today (although it might be best to wait a decade or two before pronouncing something great).
- The vacuum tube era would be ignored.
It just goes to show that it's a good idea to set up your performance criteria before you start writing.
But even this approach gets a little sticky fairly quickly. If we start by selecting a group of firsts (first charge pump, LDO, 3-terminal regulator, etc) should we pick the designer of the first device, or the first device to achieve market success? (Or, why not both?)
Does any phenomenally successful device automatically qualify the designer for the Hall of Fame — or should it just be a path to nomination? What about the equivalent of popular music's “one-hit wonders?” Lifetime achievers seem like a better qualification — to me at least.
Lifetime achievement is probably the only way to identify the analog application engineers. As for including engineers from the pre-semiconductor era, that seems fair enough — but now beyond the range of most people's memories.
I guess what I've learned in that selecting the “best of the best” is more than a one-person job. That's probably why I couldn't find that Analog Designer Hall of Fame list I was initially seeking — though it would be a good idea to have one. What are your thoughts on this?