Photo of Joel S. Engel

Joel S. Engel

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Communications

For his fundamental contributions to the theory, design and development of cellular mobile communications systems.

When Joel S. Engel and Richard H. Frenkiel teamed up at Bell Labs in the 1960s few could have imagined how fruitful that relationship would be. In short, their partnership would help change the way in which the world communicates.

Working with scores of other Bell Labs engineers, Engel and Frenkiel developed a way to multiply the capacity of the channels that handled mobile telephone traffic. Their idea was to develop a network of low-power transmitters spread across a region – which they called cells – that greatly expanded the numbers of calls that could be handled. Their vision became the architecture for today’s cellular telephone systems.

Engel, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, had joined Bell Labs in 1959, where he initially was involved in working with transmitting digital data over analog telephone channels. He left Bell Labs in 1964 to work with NASA on the guidance system used in the Apollo space program but returned in 1967 and turned his emphasis to cellular communications technology.

Engel left Bell Labs in 1983 and became vice president of engineering for Satellite Business Systems, which was merged into MCI in 1986.

Engel was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1993 and was part of a group of scientists who in 2013 received the Draper Prize for Engineering from the National Academy of Engineering for their ground-breaking work in establishing what would become today’s multi-billion cellular communications industry.

By Robert Warren