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

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.

Wolf might be best known for his work as an information theorist, which led to huge improvements in transmitting and storing data. The Slepian-Wolf Theorem, published in 1973 with colleague David Slepian, is considered a cornerstone of information theory, explaining how separate information sources can compress their output streams efficiently. It has applications in everything from video transmission systems to flash memory devices to sensor networks.  Wolf work in magnetic recording also led to advances in storing more data in smaller devices, such as hard drives.

The Marconi Society wrote in its announcement about Wolf's prize that "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."

Wolf was recently recalled as an approachable professor by a former student in IEEE Spectrum and in a New York Times obituary that referred to him as the man "who did the math behind computers." 

Both Jacobs and Wolf have been recognized many times over for their work over the years (See also: Tech's most decorated innovators). Among Jacobs' other honors:  a National Medal of Technology and the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal. Wolf won the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal in 2004 (the citation for read that he was "one of the most productive cross-fertilizers in engineering research, successfully importing techniques used in one field to obtain unexpected results in another. Among his and his students' achievements are contributions to the design and analysis of satellite and cellular communication systems, and hard disk drives.")

The Marconi Prize has been awarded since 1975 and past winners have included Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Internet pioneers Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn.

In addition to announcing its Marconi Prize winners, the Marconi Society says it will also honor former longtime Motorola CEO Bob Galvin with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Galvin's accomplishments included growing Motorola (a company started by his father Paul) into a multi-billion business, establishing the Six Sigma quality program at the company, and later starting an energy initiative designed to transform the electrical grid.

Follow Bob's prize tweets on Twitter


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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