December 17, 2018

Gerald Estrin, U.S. and Israel computer pioneer, dies at 90

Prof. Gerald (Jerry) Estrin, a computer pioneer in the United States and Israel, died March 29 at his home in Santa Monica at age 90.

Both Estrin and Thelma, his wife of 70 years, were born in New York City, earned their Ph.D.s in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and worked for three years with John von Neumann, the principal architect of the computer age, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

In 1953, the Estrins accepted an offer from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel to build from scratch the first computer in the Middle East and the first outside the United States and western Europe.

On arrival, they faced only two problems. There were no parts or tools, from vacuum tubes to soldering irons, available in Israel, and there was no staff, trained or otherwise.

Nevertheless, the computer, named WEIZAC, with its closet-sized main frame and some 3,000 vacuum tubes, went online in 1955, and after 46,000 hours of solid service was retired in 1963.

Estrin’s legacy to Israel has been long-lasting. By building its own computer, in the face of widespead skepticism, “Israel got into the information revolution early in the game,” he said.

Perhaps even more important, WEIZAC spawned a cadre of engineers and technicians who, with their successors, went on to staff the country’s much admired high-tech industries and academic institutions.

Israel also left its mark on the mild-mannered academic. “I learned how to pound tables, which stood me in good stead when later I became chairman of the UCLA computer science department… but I also fell in love with the people,” he recalled in a 2004 interview.

Subsequently, Estrin served for more than two decades on the Weizmann Institute’s board of governors.

In 1956, both Estrins joined the UCLA faculty, Jerry to create a program in computer engineering, and Thelma as a pioneer developer of data processing in brain research.

Among his many research contributions, Jerry Estrin developed the concept of “reconfigurable computing,” which led to the creation of new types of programmable computer chips that are still in use today.

Away from the classroom and lab, he was an avid fan of UCLA basketball and the Metropolitan Opera, and, in addition, left two legacies.

One is a host of graduate students, who went on to notable careers in industry and academe, and who warmly remember the genuine modesty of their distinguished mentor.

The second legacy consists of three daughters, who carry on the family’s computer science tradition. Judith (Judy), who was born in Tel Aviv, is a Silicon Valley leader, who has co-founded seven technology companies.

Deborah is a UCLA computer science professor and founding director of the Center for Embedded Networked (ok) Sensing.

Margo is the Estrin maverick, choosing a career as doctor of internal medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In addition to his wife and three daughters, surviving family members are four grandchildren, Rachel, Joshua, Leah and David.

The family suggests that persons wishing to make a contribution in Jerry Estrin’s memory consider one of the following organizations.

” title=”UCLA Computer Science Dept” target=”_blank”>UCLA Computer Science Dept – (Please specify Computer Science Fund)