Journey through IEOR History

Dr. Ernst S. Valfer

Sharp wit and great humor in tow, IEOR’s oldest living alum, Ernst S. Valfer, has plenty of stories from his time as a student in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. Celebrating his 97th birthday this year, Valfer’s ties to Berkeley IEOR go back to 1948 before Industrial Engineering was a department within the College of Engineering. Valfer earned his BS in Engineering in 1950 and his Master of Science in Industrial Engineering in 1952. After some time working in industry and government, Valfer returned to Cal to become the first person to pursue a doctorate in industrial engineering. He earned his PhD in 1965. 

When Valfer was an undergrad, the College of Engineering was small in size, and IEOR was fledgling. Etcheverry Hall did not exist, and only a few industrial engineering courses were taught out of the basement of McLaughlin Hall and “sprinkled into” the mechanical engineering curriculum.

 “It [the IE specialty] was rather intimate, as compared to the empire it is today,” Valfer said jokingly while sitting down to catch up with IEOR faculty and the Dean of the College of Engineering in September 2021.

When IEOR Department Chair Alper Atamturk tells Valfer about IEOR’s new Master of Analytics program launching this Fall, Valfer recalls how in the 1950s, analysis revolved around the laborious use of IBM cards, in which holes punched by manual card punchers embedded data. As a master’s student working on his thesis, Valfer spent hours loading data onto his IBM cards and then running his cards into a card reader and processor, which was programmed by a wiring board to conduct statistical analyses. Campus IBM equipment lived in a large room in the electrical engineering building, which also housed the campus’s very first experimental vacuum-tube computer. It was approximately 15 x 8 x 8 feet and generated a lot of heat. Later editions were housed in air-conditioned rooms.

“It was immense. It took up so much space – all the way to the wall. It was in a sacred corner. No one knew what was going on in there. I don’t even know whether the engineers who operated it knew.” Valfer said about the computer.

In the 1950s, most faculty did not have advanced degrees. Even the dean of the college of engineering at that time, Morrough P. O’Brien, had only a bachelor’s degree. What made Valfer decide to part with convention and become the first person in Berkeley IEOR history to pursue his PhD?

“I received my associate’s degree at San Francisco City College in 1948. It was in mechanical engineering. When I transferred to UC Berkeley that fall I heard about a specialty called ‘industrial engineering,’ and I made inquiries,” Valfer said. “I was led to a tiny office in the basement of McLaughlin Hall where I met Professor Ernest Paul DeGarmo whose specialty was engineering economics. He, two assistant professors, and a retired Army colonel comprised the IE teaching faculty.”

That tiny and unassuming basement of McLaughlin Hall now holds many memories for Valfer. It was where he first learned what industrial engineering was and where he would sit to take in most of DeGarmo’s IE curriculum over the next few years.

“Professor DeGarmo explained that IE included the analysis of the human factor; meaning, the workers. The emphasis on physical relationships between people, tools, and machines in engineering analysis sold me. Later, I became DeGarmo’s teaching assistant in engineering economics.” Valfer said. “I also remember being taught by an army colonel. He was tremendously creative. He used an overhead projector to create the most imaginative visual aids in real time!”

During his studies, Valfer witnessed the transition of industrial engineering from a small specialty within mechanical engineering to its own department within the college.

“The first operations research faculty member was hired in the mid-1950s. He came from industry and had a PhD in mathematics. He was very energetic and helped build operations research into an essential part of the newly renamed IEOR Department.”


After graduating with his master of science degree in 1952, Valfer worked as a traditional industrial engineer in a US Navy aircraft factory. In 1957, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences launched a large-scale research project on maritime operations. The study took place in the Bay Area, and the study director visited UC Berkeley to try to find top talent to help with the project. Professor DeGarmo recommended Valfer for the job, and soon enough, Valfer was hired as a research analyst on the project.

Valfer and his team at the National Research Council were tasked with analyzing ship port operations to reduce ship turnaround time. At the time of the study, the loading and unloading of ships could take three weeks or more, which was inefficient for military operations and the commerce economy.

While studying the manual ship cargo loading and unloading operations in the Bay Area, Valfer and his team developed two operations research queuing models for ships in ports. They used traditional IE techniques aided by physiological fatigue measurements in dock workers. Valfer designed a forklift that could unload “break-bulk” cargo from pallets in the hold of ships, which was a wholly manual operation with every box manually transferred from a pallet and then manually stacked in the hold.

Many years later, the introduction of steel shipping containers, and a complete redesign of ships and port facilities, would vastly reduce turnaround time in ports. Today, ships are loaded and unloaded within 24 hours, and in-port waiting time is often zero.

While working on the port project, the Academy encouraged Valfer to pursue his doctorate, and Valfer soon returned to Cal to join the newly created Operations Research Studies Center in the IEOR Department. The Center had a contract with the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Unit, which was working to develop OR models that could solve major operational problems and test what OR could do for the civilian federal government. 

Shortly after resuming his studies, Valfer was handpicked by the Director of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Unit to become Senior Industrial Engineer of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Research Station. When Valfer’s contract with the station concluded, he was asked to stay on and lead a management science team to conduct management science research. During Valfer’s tenure, his team grew to over 20 scientists and graduate students from UC Berkeley, representing disciplines ranging from IEOR, to economics, to psychology. They received study assignments from all management levels and operations areas and had an unusually high implementation success rate, which gained them nationwide notoriety within Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.

One of the more extensive, earlier studies for the management science team focused on determining the optimal size of the agency’s lowest management unit (the Ranger District), which caught national attention as the only known study focusing on the size of an organizational unit. The study developed quantitative and qualitative measures and used a simulation model to create a complex size measure and a band of optimal sizes. The study was presented to top management in Washington, D.C., and went on to inform policy. Valfer also presented the study at numerous national conventions. The study was published in the peer-reviewed IE Research Journal, IIE Transactions.

After a long track record of success and after having fulfilled its mission, the management science team of the Department of Agriculture disbanded, at which point Valfer became a personal consultant to the chief and deputies of the Department of Agriculture. Valfer’s final assignment for the department was as the sole government scientist in a study group consisting of department managers and a research team from Pennsylvania State University. They studied national federal personnel policies to recommend changes. Valfer received the Secretary of Agriculture Award for his work on the study.

While employed by the federal government, Valfer also taught courses in IE and industrial psychology at UC Berkeley and participated in research at UCLA where he co-published many research papers on men and technology. During this time, Valfer also studied psychology and clinical medicine. After retiring from government in 1990, Valfer was asked by a local non-profit agency to establish a clinic for seriously psychologically impaired adults. He founded and directed two mid-sized Community Mental Health Centers in the East Bay and worked there until his retirement 25 years later. 

Hard Beginnings

Valfer’s pioneering legacy in industrial engineering and operations research is remarkable, not only because of his leadership and achievement in the field but also the adversity he overcame to achieve his success.

Dr. Ernst S. Valfer was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1925. Until the age of 8, Valfer lived what he described as an “unremarkable” childhood in a liberal political Jewish family. However, by age 8, Hitler came to power, and Valfer’s life became increasingly intolerable. Valfer’s childhood was marked by increasing altercations with his classmates, and by 1936 he was forced to leave public school and attend a Jewish school. 

During “Krystallnacht” in November 1938, Valfer’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a concentration camp. Valfer witnessed synagogues across Germany getting torched and destroyed and Jewish businesses and homes looted. Fearing for his life, Valfer’s mother placed him into a Jewish orphanage which, a few months later, was able to take Valfer and ten other orphans in a Kindertransport to a home for refugee children in Paris France. Valfer never saw his parents again. After the war, Valfer learned that they were arrested and transported to Poland. They were murdered in September 1941.

After France was defeated and occupied by the German Army during WWII in 1940, Valfer and other refugee children escaped to Southern France and lived in semi-hiding. A year later, he was rescued by an American charity organization that helped Valfer obtain the necessary permits and visas to leave France and emigrate to the US. There, Valfer joined his aunt, uncle, and cousin in San Francisco and attended high school and his first year of college.

In 1944, Valfer joined the United States Army, where he served in combat in Europe. Afterward, Valfer joined Army Counterintelligence with the task of protecting US Forces from possible espionage, sabotage, and guerilla warfare. He was also involved in the denazification of Germany. 

Lighting the Way Forward

At a very early age, Valfer learned crucial survival skills, and when combined with his strong will and optimism, allowed Valfer to survive persecutions and war, overcome obstacles, and achieve success later in life.

Since graduating from UC Berkeley, Valfer has helped build a better world by giving much time and effort to many charitable and non-profit agencies and institutions, including various educational agencies, and by helping young students and adults better understand the social, political, and economic consequences of hatred and prejudices.

You can learn more about Valfer’s life story by watching his videotaped interview with the Stephen Spielberg team archived at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC., Found here.

Dr. Ernst Valfer welcomes reconnecting with his former classmates, colleagues, and students. He encourages members of the UC Berkeley community to send him an email anytime. You can reach him at: