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Irving S. Reed Tells the Story of an Engineer’s Life

One of the most honored members of the Viterbi School faculty has written his autobiography.

December 21, 2005 —

For ordering and bibliographical information, click on the image
 Irving S. Reed is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a winner of the Shannon Prize, the highest honor in signal processing. His memoir, Alaska to Algorithms: My Journey from the Alaskan Frontier through the Dawn of the Digital Age, describes his remarkable career beginning with his childhood in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Reed made fundamental contributions to numerous engineering disciplines.  He is perhaps best known for his co-invention of the Reed-Solomon codes, which provide an efficient and reliable way of protecting digital information from noise. The codes allowed the faint signals from the Voyager spacecraft to be received flawlessly on earth, and have since been embedded in CDs, fax machines, and numerous other digital devices. (The basic signal, which the R-S codes protected, was prepared using the algorithm created by Andrew Viterbi.)

In the book Reed tells the story of the only time he was ever asked to sign autographs: when an early CD was shown and played an audience of students at this alma mater, Caltech, deliberately scratched, and played again to show the music had survived.

As a young graduate student just out of the Navy Reed also participated in the

Professor Irving S. Reed
creation of one of the first digital computers, the MADDIDA guidance system for Northrop aviation’s Shark cruise missile.  A chapter in the book tells the story of how Reed and colleagues flew the device to Princeton for a demonstration for mathematician John von Neumann.

Other chapters tell how Reed and colleagues founded one of the West Coast’s first computer companies (the Computer Research Corporation); and how Reed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories developed the now-standard register transfer computer programming language. Another part of the story details his revolutionary innovative work in adaptive radar.  

Reed’s years at USC, as part of the Signal and Image Processing Institute with graduate students who went on to develop jpeg image compression form a rich chapter, as does his own development of an image compression system for AOL.  

President Steven B. Sample contributed the introduction to the book: “Few people have left as indelible a stamp on our world as has my fellow engineer Irving Reed.  And he has done so over the course of a half-century career that has been both revolutionary in scope and unassuming in style. Hundreds of millions of men, women and children have been impacted by the digital computer, and its impact will likely affect tens of billions of persons to come – but perhaps fewer than a hundred thousand people realize that it was Irving Reed who provided much of the mathematical underpinnings that made modern computer design possible.”

In addition to memoirs of encounters with great scientists and engineers, Reed also tells his own personal story, marked by his first wife’s mental illness and the tragic early deaths of three of his children.

Note: a book signing will be held in early 2006 at USC. To receive advance word, please email milly@usc.edu 
To read an excerpt from Alaska to Algorithms, follow this link