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Thornton Carl Fry (1892–1991)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Thornton Carl Fry (1892–1991)

Thornton C. Fry was an industrial mathematician, probably the first to head a division devoted to the subject, initially at Western Electric Company (1916-1924) and later as part of Bell Telephone Laboratories. He was born in Findlay, Ohio on 7 January 1892, and received degrees from Findlay College (AB 1912, honorary DSc 1958) and the University of Wisconsin (MA 1913, PhD 1920 in mathematics, physics, and astronomy). He was involved in government scientific work in both the world wars, during the latter serving on a small committee with Edward J. Poitras, who had just completed development of an automatic control system for the 200-inch telescope. It is plausible that Fry's interest in astronomy was rekindled at that time. His best known work (cited occasionally even now) is the text, Probability and its Engineering Uses (1928, second edition 1965). His text on differential equations was also widely used. Fry did not actually join the AAS until 1974 and, then 82, is very possibly the oldest person ever to do so.

Fry's last professional affiliations, long after retirement from BTL, were with Boeing Scientific Research Labs as a consultant and with Walter Orr Roberts, the first director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (1961-68). Fry's involvement in the start-up of NCAR was at the direct request of NSF. He was the ideal consultant. He brought both his personal skills and his management experience to bear on the topics he studied. He would make helpful recommendations for changes, and would almost never criticize when his recommendations were not followed. Every visit was treated as a fresh start, with each problem viewed anew. Thornton Fry was a very careful and formal person, who rather frowned on the informal western clothing of the NCAR staff, but this never influenced his respect for their work.

Fry's last years were spent in Carmel, California. An appreciation of his work and publications by G.S. Price appeared in American Mathematical Monthly (89, 81, 1982) at the time of his receiving the "award for distinguished service" of the Mathematical Association of American.

(From American Men and Women of Science, Science Citation Index, American Mathematical Monthly, and AAS records.)

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