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Viterbi Digital Archive Documents Origins of Communications Revolution

National Medal of Science honoree makes research and personal papers available online at USC.

November 10, 2008 — Tomorrow’s engineers can learn about the life’s work of communications pioneer Andrew J. Viterbi through a new online archive at the University of Southern California. The result of a partnership between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Libraries, the archive was formally unveiled at a November 7 ceremony in Doheny Memorial Library. 

With more than 35,000 documents, the Viterbi collection—one of the largest in the USC Libraries Digital Archive—offers an in-depth view of Viterbi’s career and history. It includes his patents, extensive scientific publications and unpublished research notes, as well as private letters, family photos and multimedia. The physical materials are held in the USC Libraries’ special collections as part of the University Archives.
L-R: USC Executive Vice President C. L. Max Nikias, USC Trustee Andrew J. Viterbi, Dean of the USC Libraries Catherine Quinlan and Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos gather in Doheny Library to announce the new USC Viterbi Archive.  Photo/Jon Vidar.

Viterbi’s innovative research led to the development of cellular phone networks, an essential component of the late-20th-century digital revolution. A recipient of the 2007 National Medal of Science, he was also a finalist for the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize and has won many awards recognizing his impact on telecommunications.

Among his most far-reaching discoveries is the Viterbi Algorithm, the mathematical underpinning for mobile technologies we take for granted. Used in every major global cellular-phone standard, it maximizes the transmission rate for digital information while keeping distortion to a minimum. Viterbi also helped to invent the spread-spectrum cell-phone standard Code Division Multiple Access or CDMA.

Viterbi’s research has also contributed to reducing noise in mp3 players, preventing the degradation of digital data and improving the image quality for deep space telescopes.

Deans Catherine Quinlan of the USC Libraries and Yannis C. Yortsos of the Viterbi School of Engineering joined USC Executive Vice President C. L. Max Nikias in unveiling the new archive in the Herklotz Room of Doheny Library. Other dignitaries included some members of the Viterbi School Board of Councilors (BOC), who were on campus for the annual Viterbi School BOC meeting.

“Andy Viterbi’s prizes and public honors bear witness to his achievements,” Yortsos said prior to the event, “but the archive will offer a close-up look, a window into the life of a great man to let future generations know what is possible and how to reach it.”

Viterbi himself was pleased to make the USC Libraries home to his career and family history. “The age of the Internet and of the search engine has opened every private citizen to universal scrutiny,” he told the Trojan Family Magazine.  “The act of revealing to the world one’s past experiences in minute detail, which may have seemed both daring and presumptuous in the pre-Internet era, is now merely a recognition of this obvious truth.” 

Michael Hooks of the USC Libraries catalogued the collection. “It documents the career and professional activities of Dr. Andrew Viterbi, noted researcher, innovator and businessman,” he said. “It also provides a wealth of information about the Viterbi family and his wife Erna’s family, the Fincis.”
Andrew Viterbi makes a brief presentation about the new archive, which was formally unveiled with a celebratory toast in Doheny Library. Dean Quinlan is at left and Dean Yortsos is in the center.  Image/Jon Vidar.

“I think a lot of young engineers and engineering students will be very interested in following how his career developed,” said Hooks. He added that it was a significant resource for everyone from K-12 students to historians of science and anyone who is interested in learning more about business innovation, Los Angeles history or the lives of Italian and Jewish immigrants in the United States.

“The USC Libraries are proud to present the Viterbi Archive to the global community of scholars and students,” said Quinlan. “Dr. Viterbi’s generosity has allowed for an impressively broad and deep collection that is rich with multiple perspectives—professional, scientific, personal—on his career and family history.”

Until 2000, Viterbi was the vice chairman and chief technology officer of Qualcomm, which he founded with current chairman of the board Irwin Jacobs and several others in 1985. He was a native of Italy whose family immigrated to the U.S. in 1939, escaping anti-Semitism under Mussolini. Viterbi attended public schools in Boston and earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from USC.

In 1956, Viterbi married Erna Finci, whose family also escaped Europe in World War II. Viterbi was featured in Life magazine as one of the bright young scientists at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab answering Sputnik’s wake-up call to launch Explorer I. Since Viterbi left Qualcomm, he and Erna have devoted their lives to philanthropic efforts and providing counsel and investment to start-up technology companies.

The Viterbi digital archives are now available online at http://viterbi.usc.edu/viterbiarchive