Education and Early Employment in Japan

Saburo Muroga was born on March 15, 1925 in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Those around him found him to be unusually shy. During his youth, he took up the violin, and aspired to be a musician. He also considered becoming a fiction writer or a diplomat.

Saburo attended an exclusive national high school in Tokyo. It was very difficult to enter this high school, which was considered more difficult to gain admission to than University of Tokyo.

After graduation, Saburo went on to pursue advanced studies at the University of Tokyo, the most highly ranked university in Japan. However, his studies coincided with the turbulent years of unrelenting hardship of World War II. Students experienced severe hunger and other deprivations as they struggled to study, and some were forced to interrupt or stop their education altogether because they were drafted into military service. Saburo was studying engineering, and because engineering students of the university were exempt from military service until following their graduation, he was able to remain at the university to complete his degree. Saburo received his Gakushi degree, the highest university conferred at that time, in electrical engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1947. Following World War II, the Japanese universities began to confer PhD degrees. Saburo was awarded a PhD degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1958, based on papers he had published demonstrating his expertise in the field.

Following his graduation, Saburo hoped to pursue a career as a researcher. However, jobs of any kind in postwar Japan were scarce. Saburo succeeded in finding a research position at the Railway Technical Laboratory of Japan National Railway, a governmental organization, and he took up this position just after his graduation.

While working for Japan National Railway, Saburo had the chance to conduct research on bullet train technology. Inspired by research on visible speech analyzed by electrical signals that had been conducted by America’s Bell Laboratories, Saburo, together with his manager, Dr. Hideo Seki, also began to work on developing a speech typewriter. However, they were unable to secure adequate support for the research and were forced to give it up.

In 1950, Dr. Seki left Japan National Railway to join the Radio Regulatory Commission of the Japanese government, an organization similar to the American FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Saburo left together with Dr. Seki to work for the Radio Regulatory Commission. However, the work he was given to do was not stimulating. Saburo left the Commission after a year and took up a position at the Electrical Communication Research Laboratories of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation, now known as NTT, the huge monolithic telecommunications company of Japan.

Saburo worked for NTT from 1951 to 1960. During this time, he published numerous research papers. Based on these papers that demonstrated his expertise in the field, he received a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1958.

While at NTT, Saburo began to work seriously on information theory, inspired by the research of Claude E. Shannon on ‘channel capacity’ that was published in the Bell System Technical Journal. However, while Shannon considered that channel capacity was difficult calculate, Saburo was able to calculate it. His results were published in the Japanese Physical Society Journal in 1953, and they were immediately recognized, internationally, as important.

Study Abroad and Resuming His Career in Japan

In 1953 Saburo received a Fulbright grant for summer study at America’s premiere technical institution, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, MA. From Yokohama Port, it took Saburo 13 days of travel by cargo ship to reach San Francisco, and Saburo traveled an additional three days by train to get from San Francisco to Boston.

While at MIT, Saburo was hired by Professor Robert M. Fano to work as his research assistant. Professor Fano was a chaired professor and a renowned researcher of information theory who became the first director of what is now the Laboratory of Computer Science at MIT. As part of his research he began work on error-correcting codes.

In 1954 Saburo came to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in order to meet Professor David Muller, a computer scientist who had developed a new type of code to correct errors in transmitted data, and continue his research work. During this time, Saburo had the chance to work at the Digital Computer Laboratory of University of Illinois and use the big computer, ILLIAC. This computer was one of the few large digital computers in the U.S. at that time, and it was the only one available for education.

After this experience with ILLIAC, Saburo returned to Japan and NTT. He began teaching modern computer science to interested people working in industry, including Yukio Mizuno, who went on to become vice president of NEC in charge of software.

Saburo also directed the design, construction, and operation of Japan’s first large-scale computer, MUSASINO-1, which was based on ILLIAC. The MUSASINO computer was based on a new type of logic gate consisting of an inductor, capacitor, and resistor, called a Parametron, which had been invented in Japan. However, Saburo did not support the Parametron technology as strongly as some of his NTT colleagues and this became a source of tension. Saburo decided to take a leave from NTT and move to the U.S.

Settling and Working in America

In 1960 Saburo joined the IBM research facility at Yorktown Heights, NY. The emigration of such a valuable scientist was characterized in the media as ‘brain drain’ for Japan.

In 1964 Saburo left industry for academia and joined the faculty of the University of Illinois, the research institution where he had worked ten years before. While initially he had planned to spend three years at Illinois before returning to Japan, in fact, he remained at the university teaching and conducting and supervising research for 38 years until his retirement in 2002. Saburo continues to be involved with University and the Department of Computer Science up to the present time.

At University of Illinois, Saburo taught and mentored generations of computer science researchers. Among his students were Americans as well as students from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Peru, and other foreign countries. Saburo has made great efforts to establish and maintain ties between American and Japanese computer science researchers.

The Faiman and Muroga Professorship and the Muroga Fellowship of the University of Illinois are among the many recognitions in honor of their debt to Saburo Muroga that grateful students have made. Saburo’s students have gone on to successful careers, including executive careers at such industrial giants as Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Motorola, and United Microelectronics.

While at the University of Illinois, Saburo continued his work on logic design theory, publishing in 1971 the classic book on threshold logic, Threshold Logic and its Applications (John Wiley) that expanded on this new type of design theory he had begun developing while still working in Japan. Currently, this book is enjoying renewed popularity as researchers of neural networks, which basically consist of threshold gates which have feedbacks, recognize its relevance to this field as well.

Saburo’s revolutionary thinking about threshold logic has mainly been directed at minimizing the complexity of threshold logic networks that will still be capable of high-level performance; for example by minimizing the number of logic gates, the interconnections among gates, or the number of levels in a logic circuit. In addition to founding ‘threshold logic,’ Saburo, together with visiting researcher Yahiko Kambayashi and their students, created the ‘transduction method’ that represented a new means of simplifying logic circuits based on the new concept of permissible functions. The transduction method was soon adopted by major CAD (Computer-Aided Design) companies and it is now an industry standard.

Saburo’s second book, Logic Design and Switching Theory (John Wiley, 1979) elaborates on some of the methods he proposed for achieving simplification of logic circuits, demonstrating in particular how logic circuit design can go beyond the limitations of conventional switching theory.
Saburo has also worked on improving design automation using mathematical approaches and computer-aided design of VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) chips. A revision of his third book, VLSI System Design (John Wiley, 1982) is a post-retirement project of Saburo’s. The new design methods Saburo has proposed have also been adopted and used extensively in industry.

In addition to these books, Saburo has co-authored several books, and contributed chapters and articles to a variety of books, handbooks, and encyclopedias, and authored and co-authored numerous research reports and articles published in conference proceedings and professional journals. In addition, he has published articles on popular topics such as the future of Japan, and the importance of software. One of his articles on the importance of software helped convince NTT to hire more computer programmers.

Recent Life

Saburo last visited Muroga-mura in 2000. Local residents were surprised at the honor of receiving this unassuming guest who was not only an important and famous scientist of Japan with an international reputation, but also a Muroga descendent recalling the rich samurai heritage of the region. Saburo continued to impress residents with the vigor with which he climbed through thickets up the mountain slope to view the ruins of Muroga Castle. During this trip, Saburo also visited Komoro Castle that commands a sweeping view of the Chikumagawa and its steep cliffs where Muroga samurai retainers had served during the 19th century, and before.

In 2004, Saburo was honored by his homeland, receiving the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from the Office of the Emperor at a special ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. He was honored with this award in recognition of his globally acclaimed leadership in the field of information processing since the early stages of Japan’s computer era. This award is given to only a few distinguished individuals each year in recognition of their outstanding life achievements.

Saburo enjoys his collections of Japanese antiques, glass art, including glass paperweights, and engravings. He also enjoys listening to opera and studying Japanese history.

After living in Urbana, Illinois for 42 years, Saburo and his wife Yoko relocated to Oakland, California, to be closer to their son and two daughters. Their other son lives in London, England. The Murogas visited Japan annually.

On December 9, 2009, Saburo Muroga passed away from complications from Parkinson's disease.