Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 1582:
LLEWELLEN M. K. BOELTER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1582.

Today, a great teacher. 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.

The physical laws for the flow of heat were known a century ago. But knowing raw physical laws is quite far from making those laws serve a world hungry for energy. In 1900 it was practically beyond us to calculate heat flow in most situations.

Then German engineers began developing the mathematical means. By the 1920s they led the field, while we in America lagged far behind. That had all changed by WW-II, and the person who brought the change about was a great teacher, Llewellen M. K. Boelter.

L. M. K. Boelter. Photo courtesy of UCLA Boelter was born in 1898 and raised on a Minnesota farm. He studied at Berkeley and then stayed on as a faculty member. It was there that he wrought a transformation in engineering education. Boelter had an instinct for going straight to the student's mind. Nothing got in the way, least of all himself. He taught students to attack their own ignorance, and heat flow was simply the vehicle by which he drew them in. The side effect was that they began reading the published German literature. As Nazi repression raised havoc with German science, it was Boelter and his students in California who picked up the work. By the early '30s, they'd created a new American school of heat-transfer analysis.

Knowledge was the great equalizer for Boelter. He and the people around him used last names, no titles. Even Berkeley's catalogue listed everyone as Mister. The unanswered question was the only master, and he found questions for his students. He stood back and let his students go on to lead the field.

When he moved to UCLA as Dean of Engineering in 1944, he made a great learning laboratory of the place. He abolished departments. Were you an electrical engineer? Fine, this term you'd teach a civil-engineering course. That way learning stayed alive. In 1963 he spoke to the UCLA freshmen. His words look repetitive on the written page, but then you catch their antiphonal rhythm. You hear their insistent repeating form. Coming from this quiet man, the words have an astonishing intensity and unexpected moral force. He said:

The products of your mind are the most precious things you own, that you possess.
And you must protect them, and must not do wrong with them,
You must do the right thing.
You must always have in mind that the products of your mind
                  can be used by other people either for good or for evil,
And that you have a responsibility that they be used for good, you see.
You can't avoid this responsibility, unless you decide to become an intellectual slave,
And let someone else make all of these value judgments for you.
And this is not consonant with our democratic system in this country.
You must accept the responsibility yourself, for yourself, and for others.

Boelter really saw the transcendence of those "products of the mind" -- their power to change life. He understood that the products of our minds bind us to responsibility at the same time they set us free. Boelter did more than just put his students on the road to learning. He also armed them to manage that ever-present creative daemon -- that dangerous beast, without which there can be no real learning in the first place.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kreith, F., Dean L. M. K. Boelter's Contribution to Heat Transfer as Seen Through the Eyes of His Former Students. History of Heat Transfer, Essays in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the ASME Heat Transfer Division (E. T. Layton and J. H. Lienhard, eds.). New York: ASME, 1988, pp. 117-137.

The first step in exporting the largely German school of heat transfer by the Berkeley group was their publication of a major set of class notes. These notes influenced more than a generation of engineers: Boelter, L. M. K., Cherry, V. H., Johnson, H. A., and Martinelli, R. C., Heat Transfer Notes. reprinted by McGraw Hill in 1965. (These notes were originally published locally by Boelter, Cherry, and Johnson for use by Berkeley students, in 1932. The younger Martinelli joined in their authorship some years later. This voluminous set of material was never published commercially as a textbook.)

This is a reworked version of Episode 143.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.