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Irwin Jacobs and Jack Wolf Win 2011
Marconi Prize, Known as Nobel of Information Technology

Ioana Patringenaru | June 13, 2011

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Irwin Jacobs
Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm and a former UC San Diego professor received the Marconi Prize.
Photo courtesy of the Jacobs family.

Irwin Mark Jacobs and Jack Keil Wolf—two engineers whose groundbreaking research and designs in digital communication helped propel the information revolution—are the winners of the prestigious 2011 Marconi Society Fellowship and Prize. Both men were longtime professors at UC San Diego. The prize is sometimes referred to as the Nobel of Information Technology.

Jacobs’ and Wolf’s work dramatically boosted the speed, capacity and accuracy of voice and data transmissions around the world—and billions of people now reap the benefits whenever they use a cell phone, swipe a credit card, watch a DVD, or retrieve digitized information, seemingly out of thin air. 

Just as significantly, the influence of Jacobs and Wolf ripples throughout the field in the works of their former co-workers and students. Wolf’s engineering students, who affectionately dub themselves the “Wolf Pack,” have fanned out and emerged as pioneer inventors. And countless communications companies can trace their roots to the two companies co-founded by Jacobs: first Linkabit Corp. and then Qualcomm Incorporated. 

The Marconi Society, established in 1974 by Gioia Marconi Braga, each year recognizes one or two scientists who—like her father, radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi—pursue advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity.

Sadly, Wolf died just after his selection for the Marconi Prize, an award considered the pinnacle honor in the field of communication and information science. His prize will be accepted by his grandson, David Hallac, at a September ceremony where Jacobs, a former fellow professor at UC San Diego and former employer at Qualcomm, will receive his Marconi Prize. UCSD has launched a drive to name a chair in Wolf’s name.

Today, Jacobs and his wife Joan are robust supporters of charities, education and the arts—in fact, UCSD’s School of Engineering is named after them. They have been listed by Business Week and the Chronicle of Philanthropy as among the 50 most generous people in the United States. Last year they joined a group of 40 U.S. billionaires who pledged to give away at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Among his many awards, Jacobs has received the President’s National Medal of Technology. 

Jack Wolf
Jack Wolf, a longtime professor at the Jacobs School, died just after being selected for the Marconi Prize.

“I’m very optimistic about how wireless technology can close all kinds of gaps and better the world, but then again, I tend to be an optimist,” Jacobs said.

Technology, he said, can maximize energy grid efficiency, increase access to education, and allow residents of remote areas of the Third World to get medical help and improve their societies, as exemplified by the critical role social networking played recently in political uprisings against oppression in Africa and the Middle East.

Jacobs: the Early Years

Jacobs, a native of New Bedford, Mass., survived a host of bad advice throughout his life. His high school guidance counselor dismissed his love of math and physics, declaring that there was “no future” in science nor engineering. Instead, he persuaded Jacobs to enroll in Cornell University’s program in hotel management, based on his family’s ownership of a small restaurant. But after a year and a half, Jacobs decided to follow his true passion and transferred to electrical engineering.

After graduating Cornell with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1956, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and remained as an assistant, then associate professor of electrical engineering at MIT until 1966.

For his doctorate, Jacobs worked on probabilistic graphs—in particular, on the connectivity of networks with unreliable links and nodes. That also would prove to be great background for later work on telephone networks and, of course, the Internet.

In 1966, Jacobs was invited to become professor of computer science and engineering at the nascent UC San Diego. At first, he said no: family, friends and career were all on the East Coast. But after a couple of days of cold, drenching rain, the lure of warm, sunny Southern California and the opportunity to shape a new curriculum at a new university pulled him and his wife west.

While teaching at UCSD, he had more requests for consulting than he could handle by himself, and joined with fellow academics Andrew Viterbi and Leonard Kleinrock (both now Marconi Fellows) to establish a side business, Linkabit Corp., consulting for defense contractors and NASA. It grew rapidly, becoming a full-time endeavor, and Jacobs left UCSD to become the company’s president and CEO. Linkabit carved out key niches in digital communications, including high-performance digital satellite communications. It developed Very Small Aperture Earth Terminals (VSATs), connecting Walmart stores and warehouses and enabling drivers to pay with credit cards at the gas pump; and VideoCipher, for scrambling and descrambling TV signals from satellite to cable heads or homes.

The Qualcomm Years

Having made a sizeable fortune by the time Linkabit merged with M/A-Com, Jacobs retired in April 1985. Retirement lasted three months. Though a venture capitalist warned him that people who score huge success with their first company tended to fail attempting to duplicate their luck a second time, Jacobs and six other former colleagues ignored their advice and formed Qualcomm in July 1985. As CEO and later chairman, Jacobs piloted its growth from startup to Fortune 500 Company.

Irwin Jacobs

Now Qualcomm was ready to roll the dice in the cellular industry, which was then moving from analog to digital systems. Jacobs knew the future was in mobile devices — affordable phones that put the capacity of a computer into a pocket. But how to increase capacity in the mobile environment? Experts were focused on either frequency division multiple access (FDMA) or time-division multiple access (TDMA). But a brainstorm struck Jacobs in classic Southern California fashion — while he was on the freeway: code-division multiple access (CDMA).

Jacobs’ contributions were “fundamental to the technical and commercial success of CDMA technology,” noted Roberto Padovani, Qualcomm’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. “Undoubtedly, he has played a key role in the establishment of CDMA as the foundation of third-generation cellular systems or 3G, which have now reached one billion global subscribers for voice and mobile broadband Internet access.

Jack Wolf's Contributions

The May 12 death of Jack Wolf at age 76, following a battle with cancer, hit the telecommunications world hard; colleagues and former students describe him as positively beloved.

“Of course I knew of Jack Wolf, and I knew that he was a legend. So it was intimidating when I gave my first talk at UCSD and actually had the honor to meet him,” said Eitan Yaakobi, who would go on to be named a Marconi Scholar in 2009 after having Wolf as his advisor. “Sometimes great and smart people don’t have time to talk to people who are less important or smart than they are. But Jack wasn’t like that at all. He would even talk to the undergraduates; he was so down-to-earth. When you’re doing your research, he was always making you feel like you’re doing the most amazing job.”

Wolf, a native of Newark, N.J., was born on the same date as Albert Einstein, and relished the fact that a numerical citation of his March 14 birthday—3.14—echoed the numerical expression of Pi.

Jack Wolf
Jack Wolf

With a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Princeton University, Wolf entered the Air Force in 1960 and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He then became an associate professor at various universities before landing in 1984 as professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego, where he eventually was named the Stephen O. Rice Professor of Magnetics at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

By then he had made an early mark in the field of information theory, devising a startling theorem with David Slepian that proved two separate streams of correlated data can be sent independently, simultaneously, and then combined and simplified when retrieved. Researchers would later use the Slepian-Wolf theorem to develop computer networks.

Wolf recalled how, when he was recruited to be the first professor at UCSD’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research, he knew so little about magnetic recording he even mispronounced the word “coercivity.” Early on, he advocated applying information and communications theory to the construction of ultra-high-density information storage. As Lawrence Larson, chair of the UCSD department of electrical and computer engineering, observed: “If you think about saving data on a hard disk, the magnetic medium is imperfect. Jack’s innovations have allowed us to read data to, and write data from, these magnetic devices with near-perfect fidelity. This is at the heart of the information revolution.”

The incredible data storage capacity of today’s technology owes much to Wolf, whose work helped the industry overcome an impending “brick wall” of capacity. “You’d be amazed at the numbers back then,” Paul H. Siegel, director of UCSD’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research, said of the mid 1980s, when Wolf began his work at UCSD. “The data rate then was a blazing 24 million bits per second. Today, it’s on the order of 1 billion bits per second. Jack’s work, and that of his students, helped make that leap possible.”

Wolf's Personality

Colleagues and friends who reminisce about him invariably recall the generous hospitality of Wolf and his wife, Toby, as well as his wry humor. Once, when Massey was to talk at a NATO-sponsored symposium in Darlington, England, he and Wolf conspired to liven up the dry academic presentations. When Massey concluded his presentation, Wolf rose and declared, “I’ve made a list of the 40 or 50 factual mistakes contained in this talk, but first let me just say in summary that this is the worst talk I’ve ever heard!” As the audience gaped in stunned silence, Massey and Wolf escalated their pseudo-battle, which culminated in Massey chasing Wolf out of the room while brandishing an antique sword.

Wolf also was a collector of antique recording devices, including Edison phonographs and hundreds of wax cylinders. He continually purchased additions on eBay or while perusing dusty curio shops during his many trips abroad. Many of his finds were incorporated into demonstrations about the history of recording that he and Siegel would give, to the delight of audiences at UCSD. And when his granddaughter’s iPod quit working, Wolf disassembled it and added it to the show.

In 2001, he won the IEEE Information Theory Society’s top honor, the Claude E. Shannon Award, named for the father of information theory. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, supreme societies in both fields.

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