‘Grandfather of the MP3’ dies in Israel

An Israeli computer scientist whose research in data compression led to the development of the MP3 file has passed away. Professor Abraham Lempel’s algorithms also underpinned the TIFF, PNG, ZIP, and GIF formats, all of which are in widespread use today.

Lempel died on Sunday aged 86, Israel’s Ynet news site reported. He had been professor emeritus at the Technion research institute in Haifa, and was described by the institute’s president as one of the most important scientists in Technion history.

“The late Prof. Emeritus Lempel was a source of inspiration for all of us, and was among the greatest researchers the Technion has produced in its hundred years,” President Uri Sivan said. “The Lempel-Ziv algorithm has contributed to the world, free of charge, an unprecedented technology that enables the transfer of data quickly and without loss of data.”

Lempel and his colleague, Prof. Jacob Ziv, published the first version of the Lempel-Ziv algorithm, LZ77, in 1977, following it up a year later with a tweaked version called LZ78. 

These algorithms allowed lossless compression, a breakthrough that would be of huge benefit years later for sharing files online, which requires being compressed to a fraction of their original size for efficient transfer. The TIFF, PNG, ZIP, and GIF file formats are all directly based on the LZ77 and LZ78 algorithms, while PDF and MP3 files are based on their derivatives.

Lempel’s work saw him recruited by US computer giant HP in 1993, and he went on to manage the firm’s Israeli operation until 2007. During that time, the company registered eight patents in his name. 

Lempel would also receive the 1998 Golden Jubilee Award for Technological Innovation from the IEEE Information Theory Society and the 2007 IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal for “pioneering work in data compression.”

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