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From Cornell to Qualcomm: Irwin Jacobs talks about his illustrious career at UCSD lecture event

Irwin Jacobs as a guest of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Dec. 16.
Irwin Jacobs as a guest of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Dec. 16.
( / Will Bowen)

In the next 10 years, everything will become wireless,” predicted Qualcomm founder and its first CEO Irwin Jacobs. “Regular telephones and plastic credit cards will only be found in museums. People will watch TV shows when they want to, not when they are scheduled, and the number of cell phones in the world will increase from 7 billion to 20 billion — which is three times the population of the Earth!”

Jacobs, of La Jolla, made his statements during a talk before a capacity crowd at Brewster Auditorium in the Rady School of Management on the UC San Diego campus, Dec. 16. The occasion was the fourth annual Herb York Lecture, sponsored by UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC).

Nuclear physicist York (1921-2009) was the first chancellor of UCSD and the founding director of the IGCC. York also served as a Manhattan Project participant, was the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the first chief scientist at the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Considered to be a “Pentagon man,” York was often in Washington, D.C. to advise the government on issues like the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Today, the IGCC is a think tank and international center for policy-relevant research on security issues ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to regional security dynamics in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. IGCC also addresses issues of economic development and environmental impact.

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Current UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla opened the evening with amusing anecdotes before turning the podium over to IGCC Director Tai Ming Cheung.

Cheung, a long-time analyst of Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs, was educated in the War Studies Department at King’s College in London. He spoke about York and his role in the development and accomplishments of the IGCC.

Following Cheung, York’s daughter, Rachel, came to the podium to share personal insights about her father and the family’s times at UCSD.

But the featured speaker was Jacobs, age 81, electrical engineer, cell-phone pioneer, and founder of the San Diego-based meta-giant Qualcomm company, who is considered by many to be his generation’s Thomas Edison.

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Jacobs began his reflections, with homage to York. “My wife, Joan, and I both loved and were impressed by Herb York. He invited us out here to San Diego and we thought that UCSD had to be a school with a great future if York was associated with it.”

Jacobs told the crowd he was born into a Jewish family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and decided to attend Cornell University after high school because his counselor advised him, there was “no future in science or engineering,” and “I ought to go to the hotel school at Cornell.”

While at Cornell’s hotel school, Jacobs took a course in accounting that he said, “proved very valuable in my later business pursuits.” At Cornell he also met his future wife, Joan, whom he soon married. Within a short time, Jacobs switched majors to engineering, where his first project was to build a computer.

After graduation from Cornell, Jacobs went on to attend MIT, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees, with research on the subject of “Reliable Networks.”

Jacobs taught at MIT from 1959 to 1966, until his former Cornell professor Henry Booker, who had moved to UCSD to teach applied electrophysics, asked to him to come west and join the faculty.

Jacobs packed up his wife and four sons and drove across the country in a van. At UCSD, he taught computer science and engineering from 1966 to 1972. Jacobs said at that time, “UCSD was a very small but highly social place, where they were always having parties, trying to lure in new faculty.”

At one point, Professor Harold Urey, for whom Urey Hall at UCSD is named, asked Jacobs to look out a window. “Do you see all those wires out there obstructing our view?” he posed. “I want you to get rid of them.”

Reflecting on the social and political unrest of the times, Jacobs said, “one day, I was working in my lab, when a group of students wearing paper bags over their heads rushed in ... hank goodness, they determined they were in the wrong room!”

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Jacobs said he was also called to the Chancellor’s Complex when it was occupied by MAYA and the Black Student Union, led by black activist Angela Davis, a student of left-wing philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The students were there to give an ultimatum to the administration that a Third College was needed immediately if violence was to be prevented.

Jacobs also served on a student conduct committee investigating a Students for a Democratic Society member who pushed a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter on campus.

By this time, Jacobs had written a digital communications text titled, “Principles of Communications Engineering,” (which is still in use today) and was getting requests for private consultation. “So I started a company called Linkabit,” he said. Linkabit was so successful that Jacobs decided to resign from academia and pursue the business applications of his research because “it was a chance to demonstrate the usefulness of my theories.”

Linkabit was awarded many government contracts. The company grew 44 percent a year for 16 years straight. In 1980, Jacobs sold Linkabit, but stayed on in an advisory capacity until 1985.

In 1985, Jacobs (along with six others) founded Qualcomm “to try out business again.” One of its first projects was to design a satellite tracking system for the trucking industry. This project soon led to the design of a prototype for a mobile phone and a method of wireless communication called OmniTRACS, which used Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) to engage the finite radio frequency bandwidth. The system worked — even though a professor at Stanford University claimed that it, “Violated the laws of physics!”

In 2009, Jacobs retired from Qualcomm, which has created more millionaires than any other company, except for Microsoft. At that point, his son, Paul, took over the company.

Jacobs ended his talk with predictions about the future, stating “we’re heading toward wearable technology — wristwatch cell phones and medical sensors — that transmit your health data to the cell phone, that in turn, relays your information to your doctor’s office.” The sensors could detect changes in body chemistry that are recorded as a color change on special optics. The color change is sent as a signal to your cell phone for processing.

Jacobs also commented on Qualcomm’s “Tricorder Project.” The company has offered $10 million to anyone who can design a device like the one used by Dr. McCoy (Bones) on the TV show “Star Trek,” that can detect signs of illness in the human body just by passing over it — without touching. Several university groups are in the running for the award.

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Jacobs did not mention his charitable side, but besides being a groundbreaking scientist, he is also a great philanthropist, who has pledged to give away one-half of his fortune in his lifetime. To date, Jacobs has given $31 million to MIT and $125 million to UCSD. He is also a major KPBS supporter.