Israel computer pioneer Gerald Estrin dies at 90

Estrin built the first computer in the Middle East, and the first outside the US and Europe, for the Weizmann Institute

Scientists work at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
Scientists work at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

Gerald (Jerry) Estrin, a computer pioneer in the United States and Israel who built the first computer in the Middle East, has died.

Estrin died March 29 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 90.

Both Gerald Estrin and Thelma Estrin, his wife of 70 years, were born in New York City, earned their doctorates 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.

Upon arrival they discovered that there were no parts or tools — from vacuum tubes to soldering irons — available in Israel, or 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 service was retired in 1963.

Estrin’s legacy to Israel has been long lasting. By building its own computer, in the face of widespread 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, he recalled in a 2004 interview, adding, “but I also fell in love with the people.”

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.

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