Today, a great engineer escapes the Holocaust. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1937, Max Jakob and his
family boarded the steamer Berengaria in
Cherbourg. They were about to make a stormy six-day
crossing to New York. Jakob was leaving his German
homeland for good. He limped slightly as he walked
up the gangway - the result of a wound on the
Russian front in WW-I. He was now 58 years old and
a prominent German expert in the field of heat
Ever since he'd finished his doctorate in Munich,
31 years before, Jakob worked on central questions
of the thermal sciences. His life was interwoven
with the great minds of those times. His daughter
Elizabeth shows us correspondence. Here's a postcard from Einstein,
who was born and died the same years as he.
Einstein thanks him for setting a critic straight
on relativity. A letter from Max Planck thanks
Jakob for correcting an error in his paper.
But now he boards a boat to America. Four years
before, German troops had gone through Berlin
painting the word JEW in large white letters on
store windows, and Jakob wrote in his diary,
I never valued my Jewishness as much; but today
I'm happy not to be on the side of those who
First, he'd sent his daughter away to college in
France. Now he and his wife are also leaving what'd
once been the high culture of the Weimar Republic.
Four years of NAZI rule have dismantled and burned
that world. Now the Jakobs have to flee for their
very lives to the land of gangsters and Al Capone -
to Chicago whose climate, they'd been told, was
murderous. They were each allowed to take $4.00 out
Jakob's coming to America was terribly important
for us. We were far behind Germany in understanding
heat flow, and we were working hard to make up
ground. Jakob gave us our first direct conduit to
that knowledge. Lucky for everyone that America was
not what Jakob had expected. The first photos show
him smiling and in-haling the fresh air of a new
Once here, he discovered civilization of a new
kind, and took pleasure in it. He renewed his youth
in the free-wheeling intellectual climate. He
joined in, giving every bit as good as he got. Many
of the elder statesmen who helped me, as I worked
all my life in heat transfer and thermodynamics,
were Jakob's students.
An entry turns up in his diary the week before his
death in 1955. He'd just been to hear the great
Black contralto, Marian Anderson. He was strongly
moved by her singing of, and I quote,
the magnificent Negro spirituals, especially
'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen' and
'He's got the Whole World in His Hands.'
And so, with Max Jakob showing the way, heat flow
expertise passed to America. By the time he died,
he'd become more than just an American educator and
an American citizen. For Jakob knew what we
sometimes forget. You can't just be handed a better
world. He had shared fully in the joyous process of
making it so.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Jakob, E., Max Jakob: July 20, 1879 - January 4,
1955, Fifty Years of his Work and Life. History of
Heat Transfer: Essays in Honor of the 50th
Anniversary of the ASME Heat Transfer Division
(Edwin T. Layton, Jr. and John H. Lienhard, eds.) New
York: ASME 1988, pp. 87-116.
This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 142.
I'm grateful to listener Norman Zelvin for a story
that gives an idea of the respect other engineers
had for Jakob. Zelvin was a young engineer with the
military when Jakob, then on the Board of Advisors,
visited his unit.
"I went to the gate to greet him. Since he was
obviously handicapped, I offered to carry his bags.
Then, he noticed an untied pair of shoelaces and
tried to bend down to retie them. I intervened and
tied them for him. He asked, 'Why did you do that?'
Well, I knew his work well from my college studies.
I said, 'In America, we have an expression for
greatness. It goes: I wasn't able to hold his
hat. You're not wearing a hat, but at least I
can say, I tied Dr. Max Jakob's
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.