Cellphone Pioneer, Wife to Give USC $52 Million
By Peter Y. Hong
Times Staff Writer
March 1, 2004
Andrew J. Viterbi, a renowned engineer and wireless communications
magnate, and his wife, Erna, will donate $52 million
to the University of Southern California, which will name its
engineering school for the couple.
A co-founder of San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., Viterbi pioneered
technology used in cellular telephones throughout the
world. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at USC in 1962.
The gift enhances USC's effort to be considered among the nation's top
engineering schools, along with such institutions as
Caltech, MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley. The one-time cash gift, which
will be announced Tuesday in a ceremony on
campus, will go to the engineering school's endowment, which now stands
at $120 million.
Just as important as the boost to the school's endowment is the cachet
of Viterbi's name, said C.L. Max Nikias, dean of the
engineering school. "The name raises our visibility and reputation
instantly. Viterbi is a big name in both academic circles
In 1967, Viterbi published the Viterbi algorithm, which allows the rapid
decoding of overlapping signals. In one of its most
successful commercial applications, the algorithm enables numerous
cellular phones to communicate without interfering with
each other. The algorithm is employed in hundreds of millions of
cellular phones today.
Erna Viterbi recalled in an interview with USC officials that her
husband came up with the algorithm in the midst of a
celebration of the Jewish holiday Purim. Their children had just taken
first-prize in a costume contest, but Andrew was
fixated on a scrap of paper on which he had been scribbling.
"I'd made them the costumes and I really had to try to get him out of
this thing he was working on," she said, but her
husband remained focused on his work. "And I said, 'So, did you come up
with something really?' "
Andrew, she said, replied, "Yeah, but I thought about it, it's really
The algorithm and other scientific achievements earned Viterbi numerous
honors including membership in the National
Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Before co-founding Qualcomm in 1985 with Irwin M. Jacobs (for whom UC
San Diego's engineering school is named),
Viterbi was an engineering professor at UCLA and UC San Diego.
He credited much of his success to his teaching experience. "The best
research often comes out when you're thinking about
what you're going to teach your graduate students," he said.
Both Andrew and Erna Viterbi came to the United States as refugees; he
from Italy, she from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Andrew Viterbi arrived at age 4 with his parents in New York. His father
soon opened an ophthalmology practice in
Boston, where Viterbi glimpsed the campus of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology across the Charles River in
Cambridge, and decided at age 10 he would attend the school.
After graduating from Boston Latin School, a storied public high school
founded in 1635, Viterbi enrolled at MIT. He
began work at Raytheon while an MIT student, and earned bachelor's and
master's degrees from the school.
After finishing at MIT in 1957, Viterbi took a job as an engineer at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Viterbi had
hoped to study for a doctorate at Caltech, but that institution would
have required him to enroll full time, he said. USC
allowed him to enroll in its doctoral program and continue to work full
time at JPL.
Viterbi fondly recalled those years as a kind of Golden Age for
engineering in Southern California.
The thriving aerospace industry "recruited the best talent, encouraged
them and treated them professionally," he said.
Andrew also met Erna in Los Angeles through one of her cousins; the
couple's first date was at the Coconut Grove
The Viterbis also are active supporters of MIT and the Technion-Israel
Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
In San Diego, they have contributed generously to private schools
attended by their grandchildren, but have kept their
names off buildings to spare the children any awkwardness. Viterbi said
he had no such reservations about the engineering
school taking the family name. "I'm not that shy," he said.
Andrew Viterbi said that MIT is "recognized pretty generally as No. 1"
but that USC's current momentum as a rising Top
10 school means the couple's gift "will do more to further engineering
and engineering education — goals we have
supported through our entire 48-year marriage — than anywhere else."