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Nicholas, David C.

Published onOct 11, 2021
Nicholas, David C.

(July 14, 1944 - January 14, 2021)

Quick Facts

Alumnus David Nicholas developed a process to more efficiently convert text into digital information used by almost every fax machine.

David Nicholas was born on July 14, 1944, to Curran and Mildred (Siler) Nicholas. David grew up in Cedar Rapids and graduated from Cedar Rapids Washington High School in 1962. He always had an interest in science and was heavily involved in science fairs as a young man. He thought about majoring in chemistry or pharmacy before choosing electrical engineering when he enrolled at Iowa State University.

Nicholas graduated with a BS degree (‘66), MS degree (‘68) and PhD (‘71) in electrical engineering all from Iowa State. As a part of his PhD work, Nicholas developed a filler and synchronization sequence for data-compressing Huffman codes- a process to more efficiently convert text into digital information for the fax machine.

His work was patented, and almost every fax machine manufacturer worldwide used Nicholas’ patented method in their fax machines by the 1980s. Iowa State University licensed the technology to 24 fax machine manufacturers, and with approximately $5 billion in fax sales worldwide between 1985 and 1990, this technology generated more than $36 million in income for the university. Nicholas received a portion of the patent proceeds and the ECpE department also received a portion, which it used to create the endowed David C. Nicholas Professorship in Electrical and Computer Engineering. The patent is the highest earning patent in the history of Iowa State University.

After his graduation, Nicholas worked for Rockwell Collins as an engineer for 38 years. At Rockwell Collins, he has worked on the design of telephone switching systems, mobile satellite communications systems, avionics systems, and engineering continuing education programs. He worked in the Advanced Technology group and assisted on the development of an Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system, which he believes was the first commercial digital telephone switching system in the world.

Nicholas holds 12 patents and was inducted into the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame in 1992. He retired from Rockwell Collins in 2009 and lived the remainder of his life in Cedar Rapids.

Nicholas spent his free time with his family and friends and was still interested in all things science related until his death at age 76 in 2021. He donated both time and and money to the National Science Foundation.

Selected Sources

Alumni profile:

Obituary, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

“In memory of David Nicholas: Inventor of digital encoding process used in fax machines”, College of Engineering News, Feb. 5, 2020.

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