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