About Gottfried Ungerboeck
Technological development has been a global phenomenon. Engineering pioneer Gottfried Underboeck was born in Austria, 15 March 1940, about fifty kilometers south of Vienna 15 March 1940, in a country, like most of Europe would be, devastated by Hitler’s Nazi regime. Underboeck recalls that his parents co-owned a flour mill, but his mother’s untimely death forced his father to abandon it and search for new work. After the war, he remembers, they had to find a safe place to hide from the Russians, “it was not a good time.”
Underboeck studied electrical engineering at the Technical University of Vienna, with an emphasis on communication, where he completed his diploma in 1964. Upon graduation he worked briefly for Siemens in Austria, and then joined IBM, performing tasks that would fall into the current assistant engineer position. While working at IBM, Underboeck continually tried to work toward completion of his PhD. However, he left the university without a doctorate, because he married and needed to save money. Once again, bad luck struck. Underboeck ended up in position that required him to discuss system configurations with customers, a job he was not particularly interested in doing. It was time for a change, so he began to interview for positions with different German countries. When IBM caught wind of this they offered him a new role as a research lab programmer. He stayed, but soon realized that he needed his PhD.
Before he stepped foot into his doctorate program, Underboeck had his dissertation project already completed. He turned his dissertation in his first year, but was forced to wait until 1970 before he officially received his doctorate. Underboeck avoided academia because he was more concerned with application and building rather that paper writing and thinking. The practical component of technology drove him. He was less occupied with theories, and more so with how they would be applied.
IBM, Underboeck believed, should force themselves to the forefront of the modem. He tried to push them in that direction. While at IBM, Underboeck began to work on an industry-changing voiceband modem. Afraid of senior researchers and executives killing his vision before he could fully develop it, he kept is top secret for four years. The technological industry and IBM was a battleground, where some stole ideas from others, and companies stole from each other. In 1985 IBM made him a Fellow and he spent a lot of time fighting to get IBM in the communication chip business. Underboeck worked for IBM until 1998. He thought the company should invest in communication chips, they disagreed.
Underboeck is now live in Switzerland, but works for California-based Broadcom, a company where application is much more central than at IBM. Underboeck is very critical of IBM as a technological company, and believes major structural changes are necessary. He also thinks the marrying of coding and modulation was inevitable, and the practicality should drive technology, not vice versa. That said, he sees today as a struggle for coded modulation technology because it is so complicated.
About the Interview
GOTTFRIED UNGERBOECK: An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 6 July 2004
Interview # 445 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Inc., and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Gottfried Ungerboeck, an oral history conducted in 2004 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
Interview: Gottfried Ungerboeck
Nebeker: Frederik Nebeker
Date: 6 July 2004
Place: The Ungerboeck home in Switzerland