Norman Abramson, Pioneer Behind Wi-fi Networks, Dies at 88

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

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

Professor Abramson’s project at the University of Hawaii was originally designed to transmit data over a radio channel to schools in the distant Hawaiian islands. But the solution he and his group came up with in the late 1960s and early 1970s would prove widespread. Some of their technology is still used today in smartphones, satellites, and home WiFi networks.

The technology they developed enabled many digital devices to send and receive data over this shared radio channel. It was a simple approach that didn’t require complex planning of when each data packet would be sent. If a data packet was not received, it was simply sent again. The approach was a departure from the telecommunications practices of the time, but it worked.

“It was an incredibly bold idea, a real out-of-the-box technique,” said Vinton Cerf, computer scientist at Google and co-author of the technical standards for connecting computer networks on the Internet with Robert Kahn.

The wireless network in Hawaii that began operating in 1971 was called ALOHAnet and included the Hawaiian greeting or greeting. It was a smaller, wireless version of the better-known ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet that allowed university researchers to share a network and send messages over the landline. The ARPAnet was led by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Agency, which also funded the ALOHAnet.

“The early wireless work in Hawaii is grossly underestimated,” said Marc Weber, Internet historian at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “Every modern form of wireless data network, from WLAN to your mobile phone, goes back to ALOHAnet.”

Professor Abramson has been called the father of wireless networking. But it was a common fatherhood. The project involved graduate students and several faculty members, notably Frank Kuo, a former Bell Labs scientist who joined the University of Hawaii in 1966, the same year that Professor Abramson arrived.

His deepest expertise lay in communication theory, which was the subject of his doctorate. Thesis at Stanford University. The basic design ideas behind ALOHAnet were his. In a 2018 oral history interview for the Computer History Museum, Professor Kuo recalled: “Norm was the theory and I was the doer, so we worked together pretty well.”

ALOHAnet owed a lot to surfing. Professor Abramson presented a paper at an academic conference in Tokyo in the days when flights from San Francisco to Tokyo had to stop halfway in Honolulu. Professor Abramson, who had grown up in Boston, had never been to Hawaii and decided to spend a few days there on the way home.

He rented a surfboard. “I got in, learned to surf and said, boy, I could take it,” he recalled in a 2013 interview with the Computer History Museum.

Within a year of the University of Hawaii offering him a professorship, he and his family moved to Hawaii. “My father was really involved in his job, but he surfed almost every day,” said Mark Abramson.

Part of the reason that ALOHAnet technology became so widespread was because Professor Abramson and his team had freely shared it and welcomed other scientists to Hawaii.

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“We hadn’t done patenting and ALOHA was getting published in scientific publications,” said Professor Abramson in the oral tradition, adding, “And that was good for me. I was too busy surfing to worry about it.”

Norman Manuel Abramson was born on April 1, 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 neighborhood of Dorchester, which at the time was mostly Jewish immigrants like his parents. His father was from Lithuania and his mother from Ukraine.

Norman was educated in Boston public schools, the elite Boston Latin School, and English High School, where he excelled in math and science. He went on to Harvard University, where he took a course taught by Howard Aiken, a mathematician and early pioneer in computers. It was a computer course long before computer science existed, and he got his first taste of programming.

Professor Abramson studied physics at Harvard, then earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, Stanford in 1958. He worked briefly in industry and was a postdoctoral fellow in Hawaii prior to joining. He retired from the University of Hawaii in 1994.

In addition to his son Mark, his wife Joan Abramson survived. his sister Harriet Schannon; and three grandchildren. His daughter Carin Wethington died in 2014.

Some of the data networking techniques developed by Professor Abramson and his Hawaii team have proven valuable not only in wireless communications but also in wired networks. A legacy of his work was Robert Metcalfe, a young computer scientist who worked in 1973 at Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley research laboratory that had become a source of personal computer innovation.

Mr. Metcalfe worked on how personal computers could exchange data over wired office networks. He had read a paper written by Professor Abramson in 1970 that described ALOHAnet’s method of transmitting and retransmitting data over a network.

“Norm kindly invited me to spend a month with him at the University of Hawaii to study ALOHAnet,” Metcalfe recalled in an email.

Mr. Metcalfe and his colleagues at Xerox PARC have adopted and optimized ALOHAnet technology in the creation of Ethernet office networks. Mr. Metcalfe later started an Ethernet company, 3Com, which thrived as the personal computing industry grew.

“Norm, thank you,” concluded Mr. Metcalfe in his email. “Aloha!”

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