April 2, 2008
A. Louis London, Stanford engineering expert on heat transfer, dead at 94
Louis London, a Stanford mechanical engineering professor known for his expertise on heat transfer in machinery, as well for as the red ink he used to critique his students' papers, has died. He was 94.
For the past several years London had been living with his son Allan's family in San Rafael. He died March 18 at Marin General Hospital following a stroke.
He began his Stanford career in 1938 and became a leading authority on heat exchangers, devices that typically remove unwanted heat from engines and disperse it into the air or deliver it for re-use. The most well known heat exchangers are the radiators in automobiles, but they also play a role in a diverse range of machinery, from airplane engines, computers and refrigerators to the gas turbines used to generate electricity.
Bill Kays, a former dean of the School of Engineering, was a student of London's in the early days of World War II. He remembers London's concerns almost seven decades ago about the need to improve the efficiency of oil coolers on aircraft engines. Kays also remembers his introduction to London's famous red ink, deployed on a report Kays had given to the professor. "In prominent red ink he had written 'NONSENSE' across the page," Kays said. "It was a turning point in my professional career. Never again was I going to let anybody write that on my paper.
"I went on to take every course that Lou offered, both undergraduate and later graduate courses. He became by far the most important influence on my professional life." Together, Kays and London wrote Compact Heat Exchangers, an oft-cited reference work.
"He was famous for very original work on compact heat exchangers. He was the first one who really organized the field," said Bob Eustis, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering. "He was a real engineer. He would teach from illustration, with real problems. He was tough, but graduate students who had taken his course always felt it was one of the best courses they took, if they survived it."
He took his students on field trips to power plants, electricity switching stations and oil platforms. "All sorts of things," said Allan London.
Alexander Louis London was born Aug. 31, 1913, in Nairobi, British East Africa (now Kenya), one of six children of his Lithuanian father and German mother. The father owned an ostrich farm and coffee plantation on lands where Theodore Roosevelt shot big game, according to Allan London.
When the family immigrated to the United States in 1921, London attended schools in Oakland. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California-Berkeley. He worked briefly for Standard Oil and then taught for a year at Santa Clara University before arriving at Stanford. During that time, he met and married his wife, Charlotte. They were together for 61 years until her death in 1999.
For three years during World War II, London worked in Washington for the Bureau of Ships, beginning a long relationship with the Navy and its Office of Naval Research. He was in on the ground floor of a new movement: government funding for university research.
His son Allan recalled the family's annual summer visit to Washington; his dad would spend time with naval researchers while his mother hit the tourist sites with the children. "We were always eating cracked crab on the Annapolis wharf," Allan London said.
The younger London said that his father, despite his award-winning research, considered himself primarily a teacher, and he seemed to count his children among his students. "Making estimates and solving problems was his legacy to us," Allan London said. "We would be driving along in a car, I'd be 10 years old, and he'd say, 'How tall is that telephone pole?'"
London's method of teaching was effective, logical and rigid, beginning with a clear statement of the problem. "We really avoided asking Papa for homework help," Allan London said.
London's influence in the engineering world of heat transfer can be seen by the widespread use of the NTU method of analyzing the design of heat exchangers, of which he was the chief proponent. He also helped form Stanford's geothermal program in 1974 and worked with General Motors on gas turbines for cars.
His engineering research earned him the R. Tom Sawyer Award 1977, the James Harry Potter Gold Medal in 1980, the Max Jakob Memorial Award in 1984 and induction into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame in 1990.
He retired in 1978, although he continued working with graduate students for years afterward. In his later years, he continued a lifelong passion for fruit and ice cream, said his son. "Papa never passed a fruit stand. We'd go from fruit stand to fruit stand to fruit stand."
London is survived by his three children, Charles London of Bellevue, Wash.; Allan London of San Rafael; and Deborah Beukers Lee of La Honda; and his sister Evelyn Madsen. He had nine grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
A memorial service has been held. Memorial gifts may be made to the A. Louis London Fund, c/o Gail Stein, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-3030.