March 11, 2005 —
A year after its own naming, USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering welcomed back
its namesake – Andrew J. and Erna Viterbi – for Viterbi’s 70th birthday and the
opening of the new Viterbi Museum in Tutor Hall.
The Viterbi Museum gallery documents the technological innovations that Viterbi
Approximately 200 engineers, close colleagues, students, family and friends of
the Viterbis joined the couple and Dean C. L. Max Nikias in an afternoon celebration
March 9 to christen the new museum. The Viterbis made the trip from their home
in San Diego, Calif., a day earlier to attend the Viterbi Conference and evening
Viterbi Lecture, a keynote address that is delivered each year by a distinguished
leader in information technology and digital communications. This year’s keynote
speaker was Jacob Ziv, distinguished professor of electrical engineering at Technion
Israel Institute of Technology.
”Today the USC Viterbi School begins drumming a rich new source of inspiration,
a sparkling spring to refresh our spirit,” said Nikias on the steps of Tutor Hall,
referring to the museum that will showcase Viterbi’s pioneering contributions
to the field of digital communications. “The Viterbis don’t need a museum. We,
at USC, are the ones who need the Viterbi Museum to tell the story properly…”
“The story is about the American dream, and the blessings of freedom. It’s about
innovations in technology and teamwork, and how they have become the key to the
future of civilization. And it shows our students how their work can change the
The museum, housed on the second floor of Tutor Hall, was designed by A.C. Martin
and Associates, the firm that designed Tutor Hall. Located next to the Baum Student
Lounge on the southwest side of the building, the museum is divided into three
rooms of display cases, artifacts, photographs, papers, mementos and a video presentation
of Viterbi’s illustrious career.
The family room traces the journeys of the Viterbi and Finci families in Italy
and Sarajevo prior to World War II, and each family’s struggles to reach the United
States. Back-lit displays describe Erna Viterbi’s harrowing childhood of persecution
in Sarajevo and Montenegro, Italy, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family,
before the family was able to find refuge and eventually immigrate to Los Angeles.
The Viterbi family fled from Bergamo, Italy, to New York Harbor in 1938, and then
Boston where young Andy Viterbi grew up.
Impressionist Ceiling Mural
Looking up from the center of the room, visitors will see an elliptically shaped
Impressionist ceiling mural, painted with bold brush strokes by the noted Italian
artist Sandro Chia. The domical painting is a celebration of Andrew and Erna’s
union, bringing together the swirl of blue sky and sea-green ocean waves as the
two reach out for their futures.
A colorful swirl of blue sky and ocean green bring heaven and earth together
in this joyous union scene of young Andrew and Erna Viterbi.
The mural is lit with white lights to bring out the colorful hues of blue and
sea green. The walls supporting the mural are made of Venetian plaster.
The gallery is the second and largest of the rooms, devoted to the technological
innovations that Viterbi pioneered. Glass-encased displays, designed by Howard
Sherman and Associates, document key moments in the young scholar’s career with
photographs, papers and magazine articles about his work.
Viterbi and a handful of other prominent pioneers in satellite communication
are featured on the cover of a 1958 issue of Life magazine as they studied transmissions
in the control room of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to orbit earth. Viterbi’s
groundbreaking paper in 1967 describing an algorithm that would eliminate much
of the interference in satellite communications at the time – the Viterbi algorithm
– is also part of the collection. Additional display cases feature many of the
electronics that revolutionized cellular communications.
The gallery ceiling is meant to convey Viterbi’s fascination with the spacelessness
of wireless communications. Two “knife-edged” soffits extend outward toward the
center of the ceiling, like the underside of a roof overhang, without touching
each other. The soffits create a space above the ledge that is illuminated with
white lights, allowing visitors to peer over and beyond the horizon.
The third room is a library, where a selection of Andrew Viterbi’s papers, books
and other publications will be housed. The room is furnished with an Italian-crafted
solid walnut table and chairs, and a built-in walnut bench along the west wall.
A Chia Impressionist-style ceiling mural depicts faces overlapping each other,
symbolizing all of the people Viterbi has influenced in the past, present and
Acquisitions Search Initiated
Nikias called the museum a valuable resource for scholars and announced the start
of an international search for documents of historical value to the Viterbi Museum.
“We intend to make the Viterbi Museum an authoritative resource for scholars,
so we are beginning an international search to secure an archive that will contain
everything we know or we can learn about Andy Viterbi, stories, papers, pictures,
technical contributions, anything and everything,” he said. “Some of the leading
lights of information theory and the communications sciences are with us today.
Please spread the word in the community.”
Faces of the past, present and future, all people Viterbi has known or has yet
to meet, peer out in this Impressionist-style ceiling mural in the new museum
Nikias said that two families close to the Viterbis -- Colleen and Roberto Padovani,
who are Viterbi School parents, and Judy and Chuck Wheatley, who are close friends
– have made substantial commitments to establish a $1-million endowment to give
the museum permanent funding. The endowment will be used to make important acquisitions,
develop outstanding exhibits and displays and procure new technologies for the
“Both families have committed about half of that amount already,” Nikias said.
“The goal is to raise the rest by June 1.”
Nikias emphasized the unique contribution the new Viterbi Museum will make to
the overall history of information technology and wireless communications.
“The museum is not a tribute. The Viterbis don’t need a shrine, nor have they
ever asked for one,” said Nikias. “The Viterbi Museum is a symbol of our unending
gratitude to Andrew and Erna. And it’s a symbol of their enduring commitment
to education. Education is the great equalizer of society.”
--Photos by Brian Morri