Thursday, 26 April 2012

Memories of Joe Condon

Although completely unnoticed by the press, Joe Condon died recently.  I want to remember Joe in print: Joe was an important mentor of mine when I was at Bell Labs.  He knew an incredible amount about hardware design... And as well he should, since he was a physicist.  He always looked at design problems through physics.  He came from an illustrious family (his father, E.U. Condon was very important to 20th century physics).  So, Joe's most important lesson to me was that engineering problems can be reduced to physics.  And if you could reason about electrons and their (sometimes) irrational behavior, then you could find the problem in your circuit.

I can't remember all he taught me, but I do remember the time he found a power ground short in a wirewrap board by using a voltmeter and looking at the voltage drops.  I also recall how he helped me to find a catastrophic bug.  Tom Killian and I had invited Yamaha over to Murray Hill to see our multiprocessor synthesizer.  We moved the machine to the conference room --- and it died.  We couldn't figure it out.  I took it back to the lab and it was still failing.  Joe told me to use the Tektronix 2467B (what a 'scope, microchannel plate, 400 MHz, etc).  He told me to turn up the intensity and look.  Sure enough, there were glitches on a signal line.  He then advised me to add a terminator, which I did (the reasoning was that this was due to an impedance mismatch between logic families).  It worked.

When I first met Joe he was a smoker.  His teeth were stained and he had a fierce coffee habit.  In fact, when the first espresso machine arrived in Murray Hill, Joe was instrumental in getting it to work.  The deal was that the management refused to pay for the machine, but agreed to pay for coffee for a year.  So, a small consortium was founded and they arranged to buy a machine (as I recall, Alan Berenbaum asked his local coffee shop for help).  So, when the machine arrived, every coffee drinker was in a powerful hurry to get it up and running.  But, it used "house water".  So, this required plumbing ... and a plumber.  No body was going to wait for the work order.  Joe took charge and together with Tom (another physicist), they just connected it to the water line (soldering with a torch, etc...).  The end of the story is that management realized that the espresso machine was a huge draw (that's how I met many 1122 acoustics labs types) and agreed to pay for coffee.

So, Joe did eventually quit the tobacco habit: he went on vacation to Hilton Head with the express purpose of quitting.  Joe often had a smile on his face and he would always ask me what I was up to.  When I was maintaining the CAD system we would exchange thoughts on what was needed and what was in the infinite future.  When the labs split into Lucent and AT&T Labs, Joe went to AT&T.  I saw him there a few times but I lost track of him over the years.

He was always kind to me (which I appreciated in the aggressive atmosphere of the labs) and he took time to explain any and everything down to the last detail.  Even now, when I am thinking about a circuit, I think: "What would Joe tell me to do?".  The answer, as always, is "think physics!".

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