Huffman Coding

… with a bunch of Family Stuff too

My Uncle’s Bio

David Huffman wrote this while he was a professor at University of California at Santa Cruz

When I was young, I thought that I was valued primarily for my mind. I graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, and entered Ohio State University just after my sixteenth birthday. By the age of nineteen, I had my first engineering degree and I was a naval officer in the Pacific—the youngest in the naval district, I was later told—just as the war was ending.

The captain of my destroyer resented me, and loaded me with every conceivable extra duty that was even remotely related to the radar, sonar, countermeasures and other engineering training I’d had.

My only war wound was sustained when a case of 35mm movie film fell from an upper deck and creased my skull. This was the single occasion on which the captain showed any active concern for me; he didn’t, after all, want one of his officers to die on his ship—especially for such an ignoble reason.

When I was released from service after two years, I found myself back at Ohio State, taking my master’s in electrical engineering. I would have felt totally trapped except for the summers I spent backpacking and climbing in the West. But I still wasn’t very certain about the direction I wanted my life to take.

MIT was my way out of Ohio, but I was terribly naïve about applying. In my innocence, it didn’t even occur to me to apply anywhere else, of that I might not be accepted. In any case, I lucked out; they let me in.

The electrical engineering department at MIT deals with all kinds of electrical phenomena, from bioelectric signals to magnetohydrodynamics. I came to appreciate the value of being exposed to the broadest possible education. I also began to develop catholic tastes about my own professional goals.

It was a great blow to my ego that I failed my doctoral examinations first time around. I was experiencing cultural shock, of course, and I wasn’t at all confident of my ability then. I remember how terrible it was to think of myself as a failure.

When I returned after a summer off, it was only sheer accident that I had signed up for a course in switching theory. This was my first exposure to the world of digital and discrete phenomena; the world where I have spent so much of my life since then.

And I was very lucky—before I undertook my thesis—to solve, by simple arithmetic, a classic coding problem for which several distinguished scientists had not been able to find an exact solution. Either I didn’t know that, of it just didn’t bother me at the time.

The problem was to reduce to the absolute minimum the average number of questions necessary to identify one message—of document, or other object—out of a set of messages, when those messages might not appear with equal frequency, and when the questions had to be phrased so that they could be answered only with either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Because computers and modern communications systems use ‘yes/no’ on ‘on/off’ signal almost exclusively, this coding procedure has enormous practical significance in those areas of application.

I knew that, if I could solve the problem, I wouldn’t have to take the final in the course. So I went for broke. The problem was addictive—but a week before the end of the term I seemed to have nothings to show for weeks of effort. I knew I’d better get busy fast, do the standard final, and forget the research problem.

I remember, after breakfast that morning, throwing my research notes in the wastebasket. And at that very moment, I had a sense of sudden release, so that I could see a simple pattern in what I had been doing, that I hadn’t been able to see at all until then. The result is the thing for which I’m probably best known: the Huffman Coding Procedure.

I’ve had many breakthroughs since then, but never again all at once, like that. It was very exciting.

Between then and now, I’ve done research in communication signal design, the design of automata that have memories, error-correcting codes, logical design and switching circuits, and more recently, in the logical analysis of scenes that may contain ambiguous or impossible objects.

As a scientist and a teacher, I am terribly tenacious. If I sense that I have not yet arrived at the simplest possible way of looking at a problem, then I am dissatisfied until I have. That, to me, is the essence of being a scientist.

Currently, I’m quite interested in the mathematical properties of flexible surfaces, and in efficient ways of representing their shapes. As an outgrowth of that research, I’ve developed my own techniques for folding paper into unusual sculptured shapes. This was originally only a hobby, but recently I’ve exhibited my work in an art gallery.

I don’t claim to be an artist. I’m not event sure how to define art. But I find it natural that the elegant mathematical theorems associated with paper surfaces should lead to visual elegance as well.

What is perhaps most exciting of all is to lecture on this work to both artists and scientists, and to have each group understand and appreciate what I have done.

It’s rare for theoreticians to be able to communicate outside their discipline, and my current research is enabling me to do that. But I also feel the gratification of teaching within our Information Sciences discipline. Because our area sometimes seems difficult to outsiders, the rewards are even greater when you are able to convey the essential simplicity of the material successfully.