7 Decades of Innovation in Israel: Computers and Software Technologies

Today, Israel is known worldwide as a leader in science and the hi-tech industry. During its second decade (1958-1968), the still-young nation laid the groundwork that eventually would enable its advanced institutions and hi-tech companies to flourish, creating a global center for innovation.

No list of Israeli innovations would be complete without computer hardware and software technologies that have become ubiquitous, including cell phone chips and instant messaging apps. The corridor between Tel Aviv and Haifa has even earned the nickname “Silicon Wadi” – a mash-up of the name of California’s tech locus and the Arabic word for valley.

The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa plays an outsized role in the growth of Israel’s tech industry. Founded more than a century ago, the university still was rapidly expanding and diversifying in the 1960s. This growth was especially true in the faculty of electrical engineering, one of the university’s most storied and currently its largest department.

Here’s why.

At the time, information theory, which provides much of the theoretical underpinning for how computers and the internet work, was a new discipline – just about as old as the State of Israel. Several Technion researchers, who previously had worked in Israel’s national defense research and development program, had learned about and taken an interest in the field. As a result, the electrical engineering department grew to include a top-tier computing research program that produced graduates who would go on to revolutionize communications and digital technologies.

One partnership within the electrical engineering faculty in the 1970s proved particularly historic. Yaakov Ziv, one of the Technion researchers, and Abraham Lempel, who had received a doctorate from the Technion in 1967 and later joined the faculty, developed a set of data compression algorithms known to computer scientists as Lempel-Ziv. The algorithms are the building blocks of the ubiquitous .PNG image format and .ZIP compressed file archives so widely used today.

During the 1960s, Israeli researchers also were making historic contributions in other realms of science, including fundamental physics. One researcher, Asher Peres – who received a Ph.D. in physics from the Technion in 1959 and was appointed to a professorship shortly thereafter – has a list of research achievements that reads like a “who’s who” of influential physics principles and theories. (Among them is the cool-sounding “quantum teleportation.”)

Israeli involvement in fundamental scientific research has continued to grow in the decades since. In 2012, for example, the science community’s excitement about the search for the Higgs boson particle was so infectious it spilled over into everyday media. The largest experiment conducted in human history, it involved 6,000 scientists worldwide, including numerous Israelis. Among them was Dr. Eilam Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who was profiled in the fourth installment of this six-part report in The New York Times.

Israel’s early investment in science and technology resulted in tremendous innovation during its earliest decades and incubated a culture that lasts to this day. Across an enormous range of projects – from computing technology and physics to environmental science and cutting- edge medicine – Israel’s research and technological advances will remain at the forefront of solving the world’s most challenging issues.

This post is the second of seven designed to inform and inspire readers about scientific and technological advances in modern Israel in each of the decades since its founding in 1948. Visit the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy website to read the other posts as they become available.

Sci-Tech Israel, the newest program in the Union for Reform Judaism’s suite of Israel experiences, offers opportunities for Jewish teens to explore Israel through a lens of science, technology, and innovation. Visit nftyisrael.org to learn more about teen travel to Israel.

Dan Garwood is the Union for Reform Judaism’s North American Coordinator for NFTY in Israel. A member of the NFTY in Israel team since 2009, Dan has been involved bringing more than 4,000 teens to Israel on URJ Teen Travel Programs. He holds a degree in Jewish studies and philosophy from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Amy, and their cat, Archer.