One of the founders of Qualcomm, Inc., a leading developer of innovative digital wireless products and services based in San Diego, has endowed a professorship at MIT. Professor Ronald L. Rivest, a pioneer in computer cryptography, has been named to the post.
Andrew Viterbi, co-founder and former vice chairman of Qualcomm, established the chair with his wife, Erna. Dr. Rivest is the first holder of the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professorship of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). An EECS faculty member since 1974, he is an inventor of the widely used RSA public-key encryption system, which has allowed governments, companies and other organizations to protect the security of messages sent over the Internet.
The Viterbis, whose gift totaled $3 million, said they were motivated by a desire to "give to present and future generations the advantages we have enjoyed." Dr. Viterbi (SB and SM 1957 in electrical engineering) added that his MIT experience played a key role in the decision.
One lesson he especially remembers, said the entrepreneur, came from his thesis advisor, the late Samuel Mason. "When trying to solve a seemingly difficult problem, Sam said to concentrate on the easier ones first; the rest, including the hardest ones, will follow," he recalled. Other faculty members who influenced him were Robert Fano, Y-W Lee and Ernie Guillemin in EECS, and Nat Frank of physics, he said.
"Andy and Erna Viterbi's decision to create this chair is a marvelous statement about their belief in MIT," said President Charles Vest. "Andy, who is himself a world-class engineer, has given us the means for recognizing outstanding faculty. I should add that Ron Rivest clearly belongs in that category. Besides his critical role in making the Internet a truly useful tool for conducting society's business, he is one of MIT's most enthusiastic and effective teachers."
Professor Rivest said he was honored to be the chair's first holder. "I have known about Andy Viterbi's work for a long time," he noted. "In fact, I taught one of his important contributions -- what's known as the Viterbi algorithm -- in one of my classes."
Dr. Viterbi started his career as a faculty member at the University of Southern California, where he received his PhD. In 1968, while still at USC, he and fellow EECS alumnus Irwin Jacobs (SM 1957, ScD 1959) founded Linkabit, a successful telecommunications equipment firm. After the company was sold, both stayed on as executives until 1985. They then joined others to form Qualcomm, which has achieved legendary status as one of most successful high-tech companies in the country.
Dr. Viterbi's job includes recruiting MIT graduates. "I personally interviewed hundreds of MIT graduating students, and I hired a large percentage of those," he said. Qualcomm still has a significant number of Institute graduates in its ranks.
Not long before helping found Qualcomm, Dr. Viterbi joined the EECS Visiting Committee, a group of distinguished industry leaders who help guide the Institute's research and teaching programs in EECS. The Viterbis have also established chairs at USC and at Israel's Technion University.
Professor Rivest is a graduate of Yale University, and received his PhD from Stanford. He is one of the world's top researchers in cryptography, algorithms, and computer and network security. He was a founder of RSA Data Security -- now called RSA Security as the result of a merger with another firm -- with two MIT colleagues.
He is widely known among computer science students for the quality of his teaching, and is co-author of the highly successful textbook Introduction to Algorithms.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 9, 2000.