In Memoriam: Computer Science Pioneer Gerald Estrin

Apr 3, 2012

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

by Cynthia Lee and Matthew Chin

Gerald (Jerry) Estrin, a professor emeritus at UCLA who worked as a research engineer on one of the earliest computers, died March 29, 2012, at his home in Santa Monica at age 90. Many of the pioneers of the Internet were among his students and colleagues.

In 1954-5, Estrin led the development of WEIZAC, the first large-scale electronic computer outside of the United States or Western Europe under the auspices of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where he served as director of the Electronic Computer Project.

A native New Yorker, Estrin was educated at the University of Wisconsin where he received B.S, M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1948, 1949 and 1951, respectively. In 1950-56, he served as a research engineer in the John von Neumann group at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, N.J., where he worked on one of the earliest computers.

Estrin and his family left for Israel in 1954 to lead the development of the first computer in the Middle East. But the challenge was complicated by the fact that the project had no staff, no parts and no tools, Estrin told the Canadian Jewish News in 2004.

“My first priority was to hire staff and then train them in the redesign, testing and fabrication of the computer,” he told the reporter. But expertise was scarce. To produce the extremely thin copper strips they needed, the computer group found two Bulgarian immigrants who made parts for fans and bicycles in a shack surrounded by farm animals. They were able to use their stamping machines to manufacture the strips. Just 15 months after Estrin arrived in Israel, the computer began to function.

“The WEIZAC project drove me to make a contribution beyond my dreams,” he told the reporter of the achievement that launched Israel into the computer age.

He joined the UCLA faculty in 1956, became a founding member of the Computer Science Department and served as its chairperson from 1979-1982 and from 1985-1988. His wife of 70 years, Thelma Estrin, a professor emerita, was in the same department as is their daughter, Professor Deborah Estrin, founding director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA.

“Professor Estrin was truly a giant in computer science as his contributions and influence to the field was both broad and deep,” said Dean Vijay K. Dhir. “He has left a lasting legacy of excellence in scholarship, teaching, service, and innovation. Besides, he was a super gentleman and a very kind and compassionate individual. In his passing, the school and I personally have lost a great friend. On behalf of the school, I would like to express my deepest condolences to his wife Thelma, daughters Margo, Judy and Deborah and his grandchildren.”

Among his many academic accomplishments was developing the concept of reconfigurable computing, an idea that led to new types of programmable computer chips that are part of many of the systems and devices in use today.

Colleagues said he touched many lives through his guidance, teaching and research and will always be remembered for his inspiration, commitment to excellence and challenge of conventional wisdom.

“He was a terrific leader of engineers and students, as he headed up some of the largest research contracts in our department,” wrote computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock, who joined the UCLA Engineering faculty in 1963, in a tribute first shared with colleagues. “He bubbled over with ideas, and adhered to a very high standard of excellence in all he did.  But all that was technology and engineering. What emanated from him was that of a caring, concerned friend, citizen, husband and father.”

“He was very close and dear to me as he advised and encouraged me much during my early years at UCLA,” wrote computer science professor Alfonso Cardenas, who received his M.S. and Ph.D. in  degrees from UCLA Engineering in the late 1960s and joined as a faculty member soon after. “I remember so well those times, not only as the great computer scientist, teacher, motivator and role model he was  but also as the fatherly figure who cared not only about your professional but also your personal success and well-being. I will always have so many wonderful and grateful memories.”

Estrin was an IEEE Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Until his final days, family members said, he remained an avid fan of the UCLA Bruins basketball team and the Metropolitan Opera and enjoyed taking walks along the beach.

He is survived by his wife Thelma; daughters Margo, Judy and Deborah; and four grandchildren.
A public memorial service has not yet been announced.

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