Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Charles K. (Ned) Birdsall (BSE EE and Math, MSE EE, '46 '48): 1925-2012

  Bookmark and Share

Charles Birdsall
Charles K. (Ned) Birdsall

Charles Kennedy (“Ned”) Birdsall, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneering inventor and educator in microwave tubes and plasma physics, died Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at his home in Lafayette, California.  He was 86.

Born in 1925 in Manhattan, New York, Ned Birdsall graduated from the University of Michigan with bachelor’s and masters degrees in electrical engineering. At Michigan Ned was on the varsity track team and was a champion Big Ten 2 mile runner.  He participated in the Naval V-12 program, as well as being a member of the marching band.  He then migrated west to Stanford University where he received his PhD in electrical engineering in 1951.

He next spent nine years in labs at Hughes Aircraft Company and General Electric working on microwave tubes, inventing amplifiers and traveling-wave tubes that remain in use today. This work led to the granting of 27 patents, and election in 1962 to Fellow of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) at the age of 36. 

In 1959 Ned joined the Electrical Engineering Department at UC Berkeley, launching a four-decade academic career.  During this career Ned became known as a pioneering inventor and educator whose contributions to plasma science have made lasting impacts on communications and other technologies. 

Among numerous awards and honors for his contributions, Ned was selected as the inaugural recipient for the IEEE Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award in 2011.  This Technical Field Award is one of the highest awards in the IEEE hierarchy, and recognizes outstanding contributions to the field of Nuclear and Plasma Sciences and Engineering.  His citation is "for theoretical investigations and fundamental discoveries involving microwave tubes, electron beam physics and particle-in-cell simulation of plasma physics."  

During his long tenure at UC Berkeley, Ned helped build two groups from scratch: the Plasma Theory and Simulation Group; and the Energy and Resources Group.  These two groups, under Ned’s mentorship, have nurtured a large number of PhD students and junior faculty members, many of whom have become leaders in science and engineering.  For his many contributions to U.C. Berkeley Ned was awarded the Berkeley Citation in 1991. 

Outside his professional life, Ned was known for his love of hiking and skiing in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  He also loved long-distance running, completing many road races and marathons, including two Boston Marathons, and the Napa Marathon in his 70s.  He was a loyal member of the Orinda Roadrunners.

Ned is survived by Ginger, his wife of 30 years, daughter Barbara Hagen of Bend, Oregon, son Tom Birdsall of San Francisco, son John Birdsall of Yountville, Ginger’s daughter Michele Proffitt of Modesto, son Andrew Pletcher of Capitola and daughter, Sandra Glendinning of Alameda, along with eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.  He was preceded in death by daughters Anne and Beth.

A memorial service is planned for Sunday, April 29 at 1 PM at the Faculty Club on the University of California Campus, Berkeley.   In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to:  The Charles K. (Ned) Birdsall Graduate Research Fund at University Relations, 2080 Addison Street, MC #4200, Berkeley, CA, 94720-4200.  Checks should be made out to U.C. Berkeley Foundation.


This obituary was written by Ned's son, Tom Birdsall.

Ned was the brother of Prof. Ted Birdsall, emeritus faculty of EECS.


April 20, 2012

Catharine June
EECS/ECE Communications Coordinator
cmsj@umich.edu or 734-936-2965