Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 143:
BOELTER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 143.

Today, we meet a great educator. 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 governing the flow of heat were known by the beginning of this century. But there's a great gulf between knowing raw physical laws and knowing how to make them serve a world that's hungry for energy. In 1900 it was practically beyond us to calculate heat flow in most situations. Then German engineers began to develop the mathematical means for using these laws. They'd made great strides by the 1920s. America, by comparison, was far behind. That'd all changed by WW-II, and the person who did the most to change it was Llewellen M.K. Boelter.

Boelter was born in 1898 and raised on a Minnesota farm. He graduated from Berkeley and then stayed on as a faculty member. And there he gave us all a lesson in how to teach engineers.

His method was simple. He went directly to the student's mind. Nothing got in the way, least of all himself. He taught students to go to the unanswered question -- to attack their own ignorance. He focused their work on the study of heat transfer. He drew people in, and together they opened up the German literature. Then they continued where the German work was being ended by Nazi repression. By the early '30s they'd begun a new American school of heat-transfer analysis.

For Boelter, knowledge was the great equalizer. He and the people around him used last names -- no titles. Even Berkeley's catalogue listed everyone as simply Mister. The unanswered question was the only absolute taskmaster, and he made sure his students faced questions that led them where they hadn't been before. He saw to it that it was his students -- more than himself -- that went on to become international leaders in the field.

He went to UCLA as Dean of Engineering in 1944, and he made a great learning laboratory of the place. He abolished departments. Were you an electrical engineering professor? Fine, this term you'd teach a civil engineering course. That way knowledge stayed fresh -- learning stayed alive. In 1963 he spoke to UCLA freshmen. His words look repetitive on the written page. But then you catch their antiphonal rhythm. Coming from this quiet man, they 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 ...
You must accept the responsibility yourself,
      For yourself and for others.

Boelter really saw the transcendence of thought -- of the "products of the mind." He saw their power to change life. He understood that they bind us to responsibility, but that they also set us free.

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.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1582.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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