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Jack Wozencraft, information theorist at MIT, 1925-2009

Jack Wozencraft, considered one of the pioneers of coding theory in the nascent field of information theory, died peacefully August 31, 2009.
John M. “Jack” Wozencraft, former professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, died peacefully on Aug. 31, 2009, at his home in Redmond, Wash.

Born in Dallas, on Sept. 30, 1925, Wozencraft was considered one of the pioneers of coding theory. He developed the sequential decoding techniques for convolutional codes that made error-free communication possible with relatively low computing power — enabling the subsequent development of modern strategies used by the Internet, cellular phones, and deep-space transmissions.

Wozencraft attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Following graduation in 1946, he joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory. He received his ScD at MIT in 1957. From 1957 to 1976, when he retired, he served on the MIT Electrical Engineering Department faculty.

In addition to teaching and research, Wozencraft authored numerous articles, consulted for the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Defense Communications Agency, and was appointed to the President’s Science Advisory Council. During the years 1966-69, Wozencraft became interested in the area of programming languages as documented in various editions of course notes entitled "Notes on Programming Linguistics" (with Arthur Evans Jr.) issued to undergraduate students in computer science at MIT during that period.

His 1967 book co-authored with Irwin Jacobs, SM ’57, PhD ’59, "Principles of Communication Engineering," was regarded as the definitive text in communications theory for more than 20 years and remains widely used today.

While on a leave of absence from MIT (1972–1974), he served as Dean of Research at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Following his retirement from MIT in 1976, he returned to the Naval Postgraduate School as professor of electrical engineering and the founding chairman of a new interdisciplinary command, control, and communications academic group. He was appointed distinguished professor in 1985, and he retired in 1987.

In 2006, Wozencraft was awarded the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal.

Despite these many accomplishments, Wozencraft invariably claimed that the high point of his life was marrying Frances Trask in 1963 during an eclipse of the sun. “We entered the church in the dark,” he wrote, “and came out into sparkling sunlight which has stayed with us ever since.”

Wozencraft is survived by his wife Fran; their three children, John, Colin, and Katie; and two grandchildren.

Contributions in memory of Wozencraft may be made either to the Sunriver Christian Fellowship (PMB 18160 Cottonwood Road, Sunriver, OR 97707) or the Redmond Presbyterian Church (10020 166th Ave. NE, Redmond, WA 98052.)

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