Digitizing Communications:


Linkabit Corporation was formed in mid-1968 in Los Angeles by Irwin Jacobs, Andrew Viterbi and Leonard Kleinrock (who soon left). Its first employee was an MIT Ph.D. graduate (and Jacobs’ former student), Jerrold Heller.

In 1971, Jacobs took a leave from UCSD to run Linkabit full time, and the company moved 90 miles south to a new location on Roselle Street in Sorrento Valley — one freeway exit north of UCSD. Jacobs never returned to UCSD, and Viterbi left UCLA in 1973 to join him in the growing firm. From 1973 to 1979, the firm grew from $1 million to $15 million annual revenues.

Seeking capital and legitimacy to expand, the founders engineered the sale of the company to NYSE-listed M/A-COM in 1980. Jacobs and Viterbi left Linkabit in April 1985. Desperate for cash, M/A-COM sold off Linkabit in pieces from 1986-1990.


Linkabit’s first major product, the“Dual Modem,” provided secure communications the US Air Force.

Linkabit enjoyed a number of firsts, many of which came from applying the knowledge of information theory held by the founders and key employees. This included designing for NASA and JPL a coding scheme used for NASA deep space probes from 1977 onward, and applying similar technology to secure military communications with the “dual modem” and “tri modem.” Linkabit also created the very first digital handset (D-AMPS) for U.S. markets.

They also created several new industries. Their variable-aperture satellites (VSAT) for the first-time allowed live data communications between headquarters and retail stores for both Wal-Mart and 7-11, and led directly to subsequent direct broadcast satellites such as DirecTV and XM Satellite Radio. By creating HBO’s digital scrambling system, they introduced digital technology into televisions transmission, and the same team later designed what would become digital HDTV.

The firm’s greatest legacy came from its achievement-oriented engineering culture, which in many ways resembled the early days of the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation or the Hewlett-Packard Company. The company hired aggressively from MIT and other elite schools, and when the new owners began to change the culture, many Linkabit employees founded high-tech startup ventures.

All told, we have identified more 75 direct or indirect spinoff companies — a rate twice that of Fairchild Semiconductor, the legendary progenitor of Silicon Valley. The best known Linkabit spinoff is Qualcomm, which was founded by Jacobs, Viterbi and five other Linkabit alumni in July 1985.

— Summary by Joel West

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Last Updated November 9, 2006