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Silicon Insider: Burning Questions

Editor's Note: With Forbes ASAP editor-at-large Michael Malone on a brief hiatus, his colleagues offer up answers to intriguing questions about business, technology and whatever else strikes their fancy.

QUESTION: Who is high tech's Edison?

If you mean someone who consistently remained an inventive genius over an entire career, we'd nominate the late Bob Widlar. Widlar was also the wildest figure of Silicon Valley's Wild West early days.

Haven't heard of him? That's because Widlar didn't work on digital chips; he worked on linear devices (also known as analog devices), the supporting technology for digital circuitry — not to mention television, radio, and telephones.

Unlike digital components, with their teams of mask designers, linear devices were uniquely suited for lone artistic geniuses like Widlar. For 30 years at Fairchild Semiconductor, then National Semiconductor, then Linear Technology, Widlar regularly appeared with some stunning new creation.

Widlar was also a maniac. Stories of his antics are part of Silicon Valley legend. At Fairchild and National, he kept an ax in his office, and when frustrated, he would attack the nearest tree or linoleum floor. He was once spotted wandering drunk down New York's Fifth Avenue in a snowstorm trying to figure out how to walk to New Jersey for a sales call. When he quit Fairchild, he scrawled on the six-page exit questionnaire: I want to get rich. X. (He never signed his name.)

At National Semiconductor, when the company temporarily fell on hard times in 1969 and had to cut back on landscaping expenses, Widlar showed up one morning in his Mercedes convertible, pulled a goat out of the trunk, leashed it to the bumper, and had it chew on the lawn for the rest of the day. That night, in a nearby bar, he auctioned the goat off to the highest bidder. Widlar spent his last years living in Mexico, regularly flying to the Valley to deliver his latest brilliant design. Tech is unlikely to see his kind again.

QUESTION: Who is digital technology's Einstein?

Claude Shannon's theory of information is about as close as high tech has come to e=mc². In his 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Shannon showed that all information sources — telegraph keys, radios, people talking — have a rate at which they produce information.

This can then be measured in bits per second. In other words, information is like any other measurable physical quantity, such as density or mass. Says Timothy Ferris, author of The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report, "If science continues to pursue the idea that the universe is based on computation, then Shannon's theory may loom large in future histories of science, as a first stop toward understanding what is and is not information."

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.

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