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.
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
You must do the right thing.
You must always have in mind that the products of
be used by other people either for good or for
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
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
This is a reworked version of Episode 143.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.