ANDREW J. VITERBI
DATE OF BIRTH
9 March 1935
Soda jerk in a drugstore
FIRST JOB IN
Co-op student, Raytheon
Six, but inspired hundreds
Skeletons at the Feast by Christopher A. Bohjalian
Light classical, opera, music of the’40s and ’50s
Lenovo laptop, several Dells
Il Tinello, New York City
English, Italian, French, German
IEEE, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
The ranks of first-rate inventors are chock-full of characters who are brash, egotistical, and temperamental. And for quite a few, even those adjectives are stretched to their euphemistic limits.
So meeting Andrew J. Viterbi can be something of a shock. He speaks softly, responds patiently. It’s not that he’s shy; it’s a soothing kind of quiet, the kind that makes a guest comfortable. He’s dressed nicely—in gray slacks and a dress shirt—but not formally; he rarely wears a tie. He’s mostly bald, with a round face and eyes that crinkle when he smiles, which is frequently. He looks like someone’s grandfather (which indeed he is; he has five grandchildren).
”Success comes to all kinds of personalities,” says Viterbi’s friend Carver Mead, the Caltech professor, integrated circuit pioneer, and oft-quoted tech visionary. ”But it sure is nice when it comes to people like Andrew, who aren’t just in it to beat their own chests.”
It’s not easy to reconcile the mild-mannered Viterbi with the tech titan who made fundamental contributions to Wi-Fi, 3G cellular and digital-satellite communications, speech recognition, and DNA analysis. Who cofounded Qualcomm. And, oh yeah, came up with one of the most important mathematical concepts of the 20th century: the Viterbi algorithm, a means of separating information from background noise. It’s that last one, the algorithm, that was singled out in the citation for the IEEE Medal of Honor, Viterbi’s most recent accolade.
Viterbi’s tale isn’t one of an aggressively ambitious engineer trying to shake up the world, make a fortune, or claw his way to the top of his profession. It’s the story of an unusually bright and hardworking professor who wanted to explain a difficult concept in clear and simple terms in order to better teach his students.
The son of Jewish-Italian immigrants, Viterbi did well in both math and English at the venerable Boston Latin School. His father, a doctor, encouraged him to be an engineer, remembering the impact electrical power had made when it first came to Bergamo, the Italian town where Andrew was born. Viterbi won a scholarship to MIT and graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in 1957. His father’s medical practice was struggling, and the family needed Viterbi’s financial support, although he wanted to go on to a Ph.D. and teach.
He had enjoyed working at Raytheon as a co-op student, but deplored the way engineers were treated. ”Engineers were not people trusted to make any decisions,” he recalls. He’d heard that things were different on the West Coast, where some engineers even got private offices. So he applied for and got a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. Signing on with a lab that was affiliated with a university seemed like the next best thing to the academic career he really wanted.
At JPL, he started off working on telemetry for guided missiles, helping develop a then-new device called the phase-lock loop, which tunes into a carrier signal in spite of surrounding noise. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the space race, Viterbi’s efforts shifted to space communications systems, but the underlying focus on signals and noise didn’t change. Simultaneously he worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California.
In the fall of 1963, doctorate in hand, Viterbi finally made it to academia, joining the University of California, Los Angeles. Teaching classes in communications and information theory, he couldn’t have been happier.
Then came the algorithm.