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2011 Marconi Prize goes to giants of cellular communications, data storage

Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, late information theorist Jack Wolf honored with Marconi Prize

By , Network World
June 06, 2011 06:08 AM ET

Network World - The 2011 Marconi Prize, sometimes described as the Nobel Prize in Information Technology, has been awarded to two major contributors to cellular communications: Qualcomm Co-founder Irwin Jacobs and the late information theorist and professor Jack Wolf.

Jacobs and the family of Wolf will split the $100,000 prize that comes with the honor given annually to recognize achievements of those whose aspirations, careers and accomplishments are characterized by a similar dedication to that shown by wireless technology pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.

According to the Marconi Society, which awards the prize, the two men's "work dramatically boosted the speed, capacity and accuracy of voice and data transmissions around the world, in a way that is considered technological genius by experts yet seems nothing short of magic to the billions of people who enjoy such benefits whenever they use a cell phone, swipe a credit card, watch a DVD, or retrieve digitized information, seemingly out of thin air."

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The careers of the two new Marconi Fellows intertwined, with both serving as professors at the University of California at San Diego, and Wolf consulting and working part-time for Jacobs' Qualcomm over a span of 25 years, during which time he patented technologies that enabled communications networks to run faster and with less interference.

Jacobs is best known for his work on wireless voice and data technology Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and starting up San Diego-based Qualcomm, the $11 billion wireless technology company, with six cohorts in 1985.  Jacobs' son Paul is now CEO of Qualcomm.

The elder Jacobs also started a company in 1968 with fellow Marconi Prize winners Leonard Kleinrock and Andrew Viterbi called Linkabit, which made satellite encryption gear.
Jacobs started off in college studying hotel management after his high school guidance counselor dismissed the student's love of math and science and told him there was no future in technology. Jacobs, however, switched to an electrical engineering major after one and a half years.

The senior Jacobs is also known for sharing many of the riches he's earned for his efforts: He was the top ranking technology-related philanthropist on a list of America's 50 biggest donors released earlier this year. Jacobs and his wife Joan donated $119.5 million in 2010 to beneficiaries including the University of California at San Diego Health System, to which they pledged $75 million for the construction of a new medical center.

Jacobs sums up some of his thinking on wireless technology this way: ""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."


Fellow Marconi Prize winner Wolf, who died in May at the age of 76, spent his career in academics, including as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California at San Diego since 1984. While there he led the Signal Processing Group "Wolfpack" at UC San Diego's Center for Magnetic Recording Research.

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