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"Homage to Huffman"
"In Memoriam: David A. Huffman"

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David A. Huffman, the founding faculty member of UCSC's Computer Science Department and a pioneer in the field, died at a Santa Cruz hospital in October [1999] after a ten-month battle with cancer. He was 74.

Huffman is probably best known for the development of the Huffman Coding Procedure, the result of a term paper he wrote while a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Huffman Codes" are used in nearly every application that involves the compression and transmission of digital data, such as fax machines, modems, computer networks, and highdefinition television.

In 1967, he came to UCSC as the founding faculty member of the Computer Science Department. He played a major role in the development of the department's academic programs and the hiring of its faculty, and served as chair from 1970 to 1973.

He retired in 1994, but remained active until recently as an emeritus professor, teaching information theory and signal analysis courses.

A memorial service for David Huffman took place on campus in October.


"Homage to Huffman"

I received the Winter 2000 University of California at Santa Cruz Alumni Magazine and was saddened to learn of the passing of U.C.S.C professor David A. Huffman, the "Einstein of Compression & Encryption Mathematics."

David A. Huffman was the grandfather of compressions formats like arc, zip, mp3, mpg, jpg, gif, etc.  Our ability to send and receive compressed encrypted messages is a result of his contributions and application of his "Huffman Codes."

More than being a creative mathematical genius, David A. Huffman was also a great teacher.  Back in the late-1970's, I was blessed to have professor Huffman for two classes, "Cybernetics" and "The Mathematical Foundations of System Science."  His teaching technique was critical for my interdisciplinary cross-over from Music to Computers & Information Science.

Professor Huffman taught without a text book.  After all, he had invented the mathematical science that he was teaching.  Who knew it better?  And besides, the information wasn't published anywhere.  I kept two notebooks, one for scribbling down his lectures - often furiously, and the other notebook as a clean transcription of the first.  There were no reference books.  Huffman created math systems like textile designers create new fabrics and weaves. For him, mathematics was both pragmatic and beautiful. 

Here is how he taught.  1.) At the beginning of each class, homework assignments were collected. 2.) Professor Huffman would then discuss the homework, going over each problem and presenting the correct answer. 3.) After homework review, he would present today's topic. 4.)After today's topic, he would give out the class assignment for the next session. Tests were given weekly and for the mid-term and final.  

His homework point system allowed everyone to "get it."  A student could receive up to 3/4 credit for homework turned-in late.    If we didn't have a clue how to solve it, rather than turning the homework in on time, we could turn it in after having benefited from his solution. Of course, we always tried to get it in on time.  It was a challenge, like some people doing the New York Times cross-word puzzle.  However, translating combinatorial state maps into Boolean circuits didn't come naturally for me.  At least not at first.  With my focus on his wonderful material and by benefiting from his helpful teaching system, I would persist, understand it and pass the class.   "Neatness counts," he would often remind us. And it did.

David A. Huffman would share his love of beekeeping and his love for "Tao," a word he made up for a magical number, something like the Golden Mean, (a factor around 1.617).  He demonstrated to us how Tao shows up in pinecones and flowers and all of nature's beauty.  He showed us how shifted weights of Tao sequences could be used to create any mathematical progression, (e.g., the Fibonacci sequence, prime numbers, geometrical progressions, etc.)  

Years earlier, his theory had been handy to the intelligence community, where he worked with the renowned Claude Shannon.    Huffman had discovered a convenient way to remove the carrier signal from messages being transmitted by using his shifted weights of Tao.  His encryption with redundant error-checking algorithms were also a great contribution.

When I graduated in 1980, I was hired by a department of defense firm that appreciated my course studies with professor Huffman.  

Were it not for David A. Huffman, my career as a student and later as an information technology professional, would have taken a different route.   I'm most grateful to him, more than to any other teacher.

As we enjoy the benefits of entertainment on demand, (which relies heavily on sending compressed digital data), let's remember who helped make it all possible.  That man is, David A. Huffman, "The Einstein of Compression & Encryption Mathematics."

Thank you, David A. Huffman.  You will be missed.


James E. Tessier
Editor, Surfview Entertainment ™  (http://www.surfview.com )


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Copyright 2000  James E. Tessier. All Rights Reserved.