Dr. Irwin Jacobs: Engineer, Innovator, Qualcomm Founder

By Ramin Skibba

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 6, 2015 — Founding Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Emeritus of Qualcomm Irwin Jacobs spoke about innovations and advancements in information technology as well as about the impact and role of the University of California, San Diego, in a recent lecture at the University's Rady School of Management.   

Irwin Jacobs
Irwin Jacobs

Dr.  Jacobs, who is a former UC San Diego professor of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), delivered the Herb York Memorial Lecture, which was presented by the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and supported by the Rady School, the Jacobs School of Engineering (named after Irwin and his wife, Joan Jacobs) and the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS).

His lecture, titled “The Relationship between Research Universities, Industry and Innovation,” included a historical overview about advancements in cellular telephones and wireless technology. It was the fourth annual lecture, and previous years saw speakers from the Department of Energy, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The event is sponsored by the York family and honors Dr. Herbert York, nuclear physicist, first chief scientist of DARPA, arms control advocate, director emeritus of IGCC, and founding Chancellor of UC San Diego, who passed away five years ago. One of York’s daughters, as well as IGCC Director Tai Ming Cheung and UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, introduced Jacobs for the lecture.

Jacobs has had a considerable influence on both the city of San Diego and on UC San Diego, and he praised the university’s impact on research and innovation as well as the impact of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which has divisions at UC Irvine and UC San Diego (where it is known as the Qualcomm Institute). While Jacobs was CEO, Qualcomm pledged an initial $50 million to create Calit2, and has pledged a total of more than $26 million of support to the institute over the past 12 years, as well as support for other research centers at UC San Diego.

Jacobs singled out the Qualcomm Institute in his remarks. “When you see something like Calit2, now known as the Qualcomm Institute, and the Institute of Engineering in Medicine,” he said, “(the university) is producing students and engineers that will make a big difference.”

Jacobs’  presentation included anecdotes about his career and his role and view of the evolving telecom industry. Jacobs, now 81, attended Cornell University in the 1950s and served as a professor of Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CSE at UC San Diego in the 1960s, where he co-authored a popular textbook, “Principles of Communication Engineering.”   

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jacobs transitioned to industry. In 1968, he and Andrew Viterbi founded the Linkabit Corporation, which began as a consulting company and went on to develop satellite encryption devices. In 1971, Jacobs left the university to work full time at Linkabit, which became influential in San Diego’s telecom industry. At the same time, DARPA funded the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which connected European networks to the U.S.  in the mid-1970s, and became a component of the early internet in 1983. 

“These dates are etched into my memory,” Jacobs said, “once I get the decade right.”

In July 1985, Jacobs, Viterbi, and other Linkabit alumni founded Qualcomm Incorporated, which is based in San Diego and became a Fortune 500 company. Although many telecom companies had been using Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), Jacobs realized the potential benefits of Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which is able to monitor and adjust signal strength and works in the presence of interference.  At the time, CDMA had been used for jam-proofing military communications but had not yet been adapted to commercial cell phone networks. 

“Nobody quite believed us,” he said, but at Qualcomm in 1989, Jacobs demonstrated that it worked, and it was eventually accepted by the industry in the 1990s. Now CDMA technology has been adopted in North American 3G and 4G networks by Sprint, Verizon and U.S. Cellular.

Widely lauded for his development of CDMA, Jacobs earned the National Medal of Technology and Innovation award in 1994. In spite of this, Jacobs was not without his critics and doubters. In a front-page Wall Street Journal article on  Sept. 6, 1996 titled, “Are Claims Hope or Hype?,” Stanford Engineering Professor Don Cox wrote, “They've got fundamental technical problems that they don't know how to solve.”  But Jacobs persisted and Qualcomm went ahead, developing one of the digital standards used in the telecommunications industry.  

Jacobs also often had a prescient eye for innovation. “One thing I’ve learned in business is that you’ve gotta stay ahead of the curve,” he said.  In an article in Fortune on May 15, 2000, he correctly foresaw the advancement and expansion of wireless technology, predicting that people would use cell phones to get news, weather reports, e-mail and maps, and to download music and buy and sell stocks.

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links


Rady School of Management

Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation