Tom Fredericksen: Memories on the passing of another Silicon Valley original innovator

Dennis Monticelli, Fellow Emeritus at Texas Instruments, shares his memories

Tom hired me right out of school into National. He was my first boss and a wonderful mentor. We stayed friends afterwards and socialized. I attended his memorial and spoke.

There are many stories about Tom, some of which have to do with Tom being such a great story teller himself. Many of them are funny. The one I will share has to do with his work at Motorola. Among his integration firsts was early work in audio. Tom designed an audio chip that was selected for the Apollo program. His chip was in Neil Armstrong's helmet on that historical landing. Like all engineers that were involved with a launch, Tom was required to be on immediate call should trouble arise. He was glued to the TV like all of us, only in has case the phone was within arm's reach.

As Armstrong descended down the ladder and was about to take his first step he began reciting his first words…..only they were garbled & broken up like a bad cell phone connection! Tom's heart was already pounding in anticipation of his chip being put to the test and when the audio failed he just about had a coronary. He looked at the phone and knew it soon would be ringing. What would he say? But then Armstrong planted his foot and the whip antenna stopped scraping along the ladder. With clear audio he recited the words that were recorded for all time….to Tom's tremendous relief!

Tom Frederiksen was a very creative engineer. He believed in achieving an understanding from first principles so as to develop the insight so important to taking leaps in technology. He called this his intuitive approach and wrote several technical books on the subject. For a young engineer there was no better mentor.

Bob Dobkin, CTO and co-founder of Linear Technology, reminisces

Bob Dobkin reminisced about Tom when they were both at National. Dobkin told me that Fredericksen did some nice audio amp designs back then including a high power audio amp for which Fredericksen delivered a paper at the Solid State Conference.

Fredericksen was a really good communicator, Dobkin commented, he could take a topic and simplify and organize it to give understandable tutorial talks on electronics. He had a knack for intuitive design. Dobkin said that more engineers should adopt this technique. Many engineers/designers take a simple op amp design and begin to describe it with equations instead of taking an intuitive approach to discussing the concept. Fredericksen taught intuitively as well.

In 1981, Dobkin left National, but he remembers that Fredericksen became an expert witness for technical issues. He was very easy to talk to as well. Dobkin also directed me to Tom

Fredericksen’s obituary in the San Jose Mercury which he said summarized his life well. Tom Fredericksen obituary

Playing pranks on your boss

I had heard various versions of this story (One from Dennis Monticelli), but in early Silicon Valley days, there was a great deal of ingenuity as well as fun and here is how the story goes:

In 1975 National Semiconductor's Dennis Monticelli worked on a team that developed a camera control chip. Kodak had traveled to Silicon Valley to review the project. Monticelli's boss, IC designer Tom Frederiksen, was usually calm and collected. This day he was quite nervous, what with the customer visiting and all the top National bosses looking over his shoulder.

It turned out there was only one good wafer of the new camera chip. So Frederiksen told Monticelli to get the sole good wafer to the packaging group right away, so the Kodak executives could take the parts back to Rochester. Instead, Monticelli grabbed a bad wafer from the lot with his tweezers and jogged down the hallway. As he approached Frederiksen's desk he pretended to trip and the wafer flipped off the tweezers and struck the hard floor, breaking into a bunch of useless pieces.

Monticelli feigned shock, but that was nothing compared to the look of horror on Frederiksen's face. With a straight face Monticelli stammered, “I was rushing. I'm so sorry! What are you going to tell Kodak?”

After the last shade of color had drained from Frederiksen's face, Monticelli's accomplice, technician Bob Sleeth, came up behind him, safely holding the real parts in a wafer carrier. Monticelli estimates that if prank had gone on for 11 seconds instead of 10, he might not have worked at National much longer.

Tom Fredericksen wrote some books as well (I think he wrote five). Here is one classic that is now out of print:

Intuitive IC OP amps (National’s semiconductor technology series)

One of his patents was the Double Digital-to-Analog Converter

Tom was at the annual Analog Aficionados party in 2012 at David’s in Santa Clara, CA. Paul Rako commented at that time:

Here is IC designer Tom Frederiksen talking to Arlie Stonestreet II and Kirkwood Rough. It is essential to the get the experienced old hands of analog some exposure to the next generation of analog talent. Tom designed the LM3900, the Norton op amp, when he was at National Semiconductor.

I really like to convey the essence of these early analog gurus; they were a rare breed seldom found in the new millennium. It was a different time and a different mind-set in those days and as I always say:

You need to know the history of the industry in which you are and where and how IC electronics technology was born so that you can know who you are and benefit from was has been accomplished in past times.

I urge anyone to please share your experiences with and of Tom Fredericksen with our audience in the comments below.

4 comments on “Tom Fredericksen: Memories on the passing of another Silicon Valley original innovator

  1. etnapowers
    September 23, 2015

    “Tom Frederiksen was a very creative engineer.  He believed in achieving an understanding from first principles so as to develop the insight so important to taking leaps in technology.  He called this his intuitive approach and wrote several technical books on the subject.  For a young engineer there was no better mentor.”


    The understanding from first principles is the basis of engineering science. I guess Tom attended a great university (maybe the MIT?) to learn this very important concept.



  2. Steve Taranovich
    September 23, 2015

    @etnapowers—Tom attended a really excellent university—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California and graduated with  a BSEE in 1957

  3. Ken.Coffman
    October 5, 2015

    I'm sorry to hear about Tom Frederiksen's passing. His books (paticularly Intuitive Operational Amplifiers) were big influences and I'm very grateful he wrote them and they are still available for us to study. RIP, Tom.

  4. MClayton
    October 8, 2015

    EE college in the 1950's was based mostly on 60 cycle machinery, power generation, motors and a tiny bit on new transistor (not IC yet) and diode circuits at the great universities.  But California schools quickly focused on solid state physics and circircuit design and eventually on manufacturing engineering for our industry.  

    That pre-IC decade did launch the great solid state chip making industry which really took off in early 1960's with lots of government funding, and the real need for calculators light enough to carry to classrooms.  National was the real analog leader. I remember that none of the great discrete manufacturers easily moved into IC leadership and their lag is typical of successful giants. Viva innovation thru creative destruction!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.