Andrew Viterbi and his late wife, Erna Finci Viterbi, were a devoted and powerful couple for over 50 years. They both were born to pre-World War II European Jewish families who eventually settled in the USA.
Born in 1935, Andrew Viterbi’s first home was in Bergamo, Italy, northeast of Milan. His father, Achille, was an ophthalmologist, and his mother, Maria Luria, was a homemaker.
In 1938, the regime of Benito Mussolini passed new racial laws targeted at Italy’s Jews. Suddenly Italian Jews found themselves renounced by their homeland. Achille Viterbi closed his practice and had the foresight to escape. The family was supposed to sail for the USA on September 1 — also the secret date Hitler had chosen for his invasion of Poland. Acting on a tip, the Viterbis left two weeks early, landing safely in New York, where a cousin lived.
Within two years, the family moved again, this time to Boston. As a boy Andrew dreamt of becoming an engineer and following in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Guglielmo Marconi, considered to be the “Father of Radio”.
During World War II, Erna Finci, her brother, and parents fled from the family home in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, as the German army moved in. When the family reached the Italians in Montenegro, partisans blew up a troop carrier. In reprisal, the Italian army arrested a large number of civilians. Among them were Erna’s father Joseph, her grandfather, and two uncles. Seeing them in handcuffs, she burst into tears. “Let them go,” said an Italian officer. “I don’t want to see this little girl cry.”
The Finci family escaped to Parma in Italy, then fled to Switzerland, where they waited until the end of the war, finally settling in California in 1950.
In 1956, another event occurred that changed their lives. Mutual friends and Andrew’s cousins fixed Erna and Andrew up for a blind date. Andrew Viterbi has said in interviews that Erna Finci “was destined to be my wife.” Among other things, they shared a dramatic entry into a new land.
Andrew Viterbi is widely recognized as a brilliant scientist, entrepreneur and corporate leader who has forever changed how people everywhere connect and communicate. He is the creator of the Viterbi Algorithm, a mathematical formula used in many of today’s mobile devices. The algorithm allows rapid and accurate decoding of the excess of overlapping signals, helping to eliminate signal interference. It is used in all four international standards for digital cellular telephones, as well as in data terminals, digital satellite broadcast receivers and deep space telemetry.
It can be truly stated that everyone, everywhere is somehow affected by this algorithm.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in communications theory in just five years, Andrew Viterbi began working at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a center for communications and satellite control systems that would later become part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He was a member of the team that designed the telemetry equipment for the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1. While at JPL, he and Erna met and subsequently married in 1958. While working at JPL he wrote his USC PhD thesis in electrical engineering.
He is the co-founder of Linkabit, a telecommunications consulting company, and of Qualcomm, a world leader in 3G and next generation mobile technologies. Andrew served as Vice Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Qualcomm until his retirement in 2000.
Erna, who was by his side throughout his career and myriad achievements, once recalled how he wrote scientific papers, lost in thought sitting on the couch, scribbling on a notepad while their three children played at his feet.
Among the numerous awards Dr. Andrew Viterbi has received for his contributions to communications theory and its industrial applications are the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Medal of Honor, its highest award; the Marconi International Fellowship Award and the IEEE’s Shannon Award and Lecture, considered the highest honor in communication technology; and the National Medal of Science.
Erna Viterbi, meanwhile, held leadership roles at philanthropies around the world, and together with Andrew gave generously to educational institutions, health sciences research, veterans causes, arts organizations and a foundation for Holocaust studies at USC.
Erna is remembered by all as Andrew’s loving wife and trusted partner. Together they created a devoted family and became faithful and generous philanthropists.
They were especially committed to the advancement and defense of the State of Israel. A pivotal point in this relationship occurred when Dr. Viterbi delivered a series of lectures at Technion in 1967. These led to his and Erna’s almost 50 years of dedication and generosity to the institution through the establishment of chairs, fellowship and faculty recruitment programs and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Center for Advanced Studies in Computer Technology. Viterbi explains, “I am extremely proud to have my name associated with the Technion, Israel’s leading science and technology university and one of the top institutions of its kind in the world.” This commitment continues in 2015 with his extraordinary gift to name the Faculty of Electrical Engineering.