Norman Abramson, pioneer behind wireless network, dies at 88

Norman Abramson, leader of a group of scientists and engineers who pioneered the development of wireless computer networks, died on December 1 at his home in San Francisco. He was 88.

The cause was skin cancer that metastasized to his lungs, his son Mark said.

In Professor Abramson’s project University of Hawaii Originally designed to transmit data to schools on remote Hawaii islands via radio channel. But his and his group’s solution would have been widely applicable in the late 1960s and 70s; Some of their technology is still in use in smartphones, satellites and home wifi networks.

The technology they created allowed many digital devices to send and receive data over that shared radio channel. It was a simple method in which each packet of data did not require complicated scheduling of sending. If a data packet was not received, it was sent again. The approach was a departure from telecommunications practices at the time, but it worked.

“It was an incredibly audacious idea, real out-of-the-box engineering”, said Google’s computer scientist and co-author, Vinton Cerf, with Robert and Kahane of technical standards for connecting computer networks over the Internet .

The wireless network in Hawaii, which began to operate in 1971, was called ALOHAnet, which embraced aerial salutation for greeting or parting. It was a smaller, wireless version of the better-known ARPAnet, a precursor to the Internet, that allowed university researchers to share a network and send messages to landlines. ARPAnet was led by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, which also funded ALOHAnet.

“Early wireless work in Hawaii is of little importance,” said Mark Weber, an Internet historian at the Computer History Museum in Mount Weir, California. Every modern form of wireless data networking from WiFi to your cellphone goes back to ALOHAnet. . “

Professor Abramson is called the father of wireless networking. But it was a shared paternity. The project involved graduate students and many faculty members, notably Frank Kuo, a former Bell Labs scientist who came to the University of Hawaii in 1966, the same year Professor Abramson arrived.

His deep expertise was in communication theory, his Ph.D. Thesis at Stanford University. The fundamental design ideas were behind ALOHAnet. In a 2018 oral history interview for the Computer History Museum, Professor Kuo said, “Norm was the principle and I was the implementer, and so we did a great job together.”

ALOHAnet owes a lot to surfing. Professor Abramson was presenting a paper at an academic conference in Tokyo in those days when flights from San Francisco to Tokyo had to be intercepted in Honolulu. Professor Abramson, who grew up in Boston, had not previously gone to Hawaii and decided to spend a few days on the way home.

He rented a surfboard. “I get it, I learned how to surf, and I said, Boy, I can stand some of it,” he recalled in 2013 An oral history interview With the Museum of Computer History.

Within a year, after the University of Hawaii offered him a professorship for a term, he and his family moved to Hawaii. “My father was really wrapped up in his work, but he came out almost every day,” Mark Abramson said.

That ALOHAnet technique was widely used was partly due to Professor Abramson and his team sharing it freely and welcoming other scientists in Hawaii.

“We had no patent, and ALOHA was published in scientific papers,” putting his work in the public domain, Professor Abramson said in oral history, “: and he was fine with me. I was about that thing. I was too busy to worry. “

Norman Manuel Abramson was born on 1 April 1932 in Boston to Edward and Esther Abramson. His father was a commercial photographer, his mother a housewife. Norman and his sister Harriet grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood, home to most Jewish immigrants at the time, like their parents. His father was from Ukraine, his mother from Lithuania.

Norman was educated in Boston’s public schools, Elite Boston Latin School and English High School, where he excelled in mathematics and science. He went to Harvard University, where he took a course he taught Howard Aiken, A mathematician and an early pioneer in computing. It was a computer course before the computer science discipline came into existence, and he enjoyed his first taste of programming.

Professor Abramson studied physics at Harvard, then received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford in 1958. He had worked in the industry shortly before and hinted at postdoctoral teaching. airy. He retired from the University of Hawaii in 1994.

In addition to his son, Mark, he is survived by his wife, Joan Abramson; His sister Harriet Schnon; And three grandchildren. Their daughter, Karin Wellington, died in 2014.

Some data-networking techniques developed by Professor Abramson and his aerial team proved valuable not only in wireless communications, but also in wired networks. One heir to his work was Robert Metcalf, a young computer scientist in 1973 working at the Xerox PARC working in a Silicon Valley research lab, which became a fountainhead of personal computer innovations.

Mr. Metcalf was working on enabling personal computers to share data over a wired office network. He had read a 1970 paper written by Professor Abramson, which described ALOHAnet’s method for transmitting and transforming data over a network.

“Normally kindly invited me to study ALOHAnet at the University of Hawaii for a month,” Mr. Metcalf recalled in an email.

Mr. Metcalf and his colleagues at Xerox PARC adopted and reinvented the ALOHAnet technology in creating Ethernet office networking. Later, Mr. Metcalf founded an Ethernet company, 3Com, which concluded as the personal computer industry grew.

“In general, thank you,” Mr. Metcalf concluded in his email. “Aloha!”

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