It’s not a title that’s given lightly. Qualcomm co-founder Dr. Irwin Jacobs will be named a Computer History Museum Fellow on Saturday April 26, joining such distinguished inventors as Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Wozniak and Linus Torvalds. Pioneering mobile invention for more than 30 years, Jacobs first realized the potential of CDMA as a mobile technology as early as 1985.
In 1989, Qualcomm placed the first CDMA call, with commercial networks launching globally just seven years later, amassing 301.9 million subscribers in more than 60 countries within a decade. Known for his exhaustive knowledge of mobile communications, Jacobs led Qualcomm as the company launched the first commercial CDMA smartphone, integrated GPS capabilities into a CDMA chipset for the first time, placed the first HSPA+ call and powered the first Android mobile device, the HTC-manufactured T-Mobile G1. He also initiated Qualcomm's SoC efforts, establishing a low-power Computing Research Center in Research Triangle Park and a DSP Research Center in Austin, TX.
In celebration of Jacobs' induction as a Fellow, here's a look at Qualcomm's early years.
An early photo of Jacobs (date unknown). Jacobs first founded LINKABIT with UCLA professors Andrew Viterbi and Len Kleinrock in 1968. In 1985, he decided to try something new.
He was joined in his new venture by Viterbi and five other early LINKABIT employees. Meeting in Jacobs’ home office, they came up with an idea to build a company focused on “quality communications” technologies. Qualcomm was born.
Five of Qualcomm’s seven co-founders address employees at an early team meeting—from left to right is Klein Gilhousen, Adelia “Dee” Coffman, Jacobs, Harvey White and Franklin Antonio. At the far right is Jeanette Darby, the company’s first executive assistant, who is officially employee #008. Franklin Antonio was the lucky recipient of employee badge #007. (Date of photo unknown.)
Jacobs kicks off a meeting for his three-year-old company in this 1988 snapshot. In the early years, meetings were often held in the company parking lot or cafeteria. If there were no chairs available, everyone sat on the ground.
The company’s first major product had nothing to do with cellphones. OmniTRACS, launched in 1988, was a two-way satellite communication system that enabled truck fleet companies to track big rigs moving cross country.
Qualcomm moved into early CDMA systems with this test van. Engineers drove it around San Diego making and receiving calls to try out the system. They faced a huge challenge: proving that CDMA could work for cellular communications. (1989)
Inside the Qualcomm test van: Jacobs checks in as (left to right) Sherman Gregory and Rob Blakeney make the second-ever CDMA phone call from the test van. Where was the photographer during the first call? (1989)
Jacobs works on the early CDMA system with Gregory and Mike Coad. (1989)
When Jacobs went to present the system to a room full of telecom professionals and influencers, a glitch occurred. Jacobs stalled, dragging out his presentation until the demo was fixed. The tactic worked and the demo was a success. (1989)
In 1990, five-year-old Qualcomm had about 400 employees. During that year, the company (along with NYNEX) would successfully demonstrate CDMA in NYC, and win a large 2½ year contract from DARPA to develop High Definition Television (yes, HDTV). The company’s OmniTRACS system was lauded in Popular Science as “one of 1990’s outstanding products and technological achievements in the field of computers and electronics.”
In the summer of 1993, the U.S. Telecommunications Industry Association adopted CDMA as a North American digital standard. Co-founder Andrew Viterbi and early Qualcomm employees celebrate the news. Look closely, and you’ll see a future Qualcomm CEO and Chairman standing directly behind Viterbi. (1993)