Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: David F. Salisbury, News Service (650) 725-1944;

Memorial for Stephen Kline; engineer, interdisciplinary thinker

Stephen Kline was an engineer who wasn't content to be a technical virtuoso. A pioneer in the field of fluid dynamics, the emeritus professor of mechanical engineering also helped to lower the barriers dividing the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities.

On the engineering side, his early studies of turbulence contributed substantially to the aerodynamically efficient shapes of today's airplanes and automobiles. On the two-cultures side, he was one of the founders of Stanford's Science, Technology and Society program and a proponent of an advanced theory of innovation that gained widespread recognition.

Kline, a faculty member for 40 years, died Oct. 24 at his campus home of liver disease at age 75. Memorial services will be held at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, in Memorial Church.

Even in a community of over-achievers Kline stood out, according to his colleagues. "Steve was a very remarkable person with a broad range of interests. He had exceptional drive, personality and originality," said Walter Vincenti, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics, a longtime friend. "He had a very striking personality. He was very convinced of the validity of his own ideas, and very strong in presenting them."

Kline was born and grew up in Los Angeles. He earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford in 1943. After graduating, he went to work for the U.S. Army in the Office of the Chief of Ordnance for three years before taking a job as a research analyst at North American Aviation (now Rocketdyne). He returned to Stanford and obtained his master of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1949. He earned a doctorate in 1952 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and heat transfer. He joined the Stanford faculty immediately thereafter and served until he retired in 1992.

"Since I was very young I have had two characteristics which pushed me toward and helped me in a career in science and engineering," Kline once wrote. "I have an intense curiosity about how things work, and I want to understand them in a direct, visual physical way. I am primarily interested in problems which are largely unsolved and important to humans and to the advancement of science and technology."

In the 1940s and 1950s, the nature of turbulence was considered one of the most important unsolved problems in fluid mechanics, so Kline was drawn to it. He developed methods of scientific visualization that allowed him to take the first detailed look at the layers of turbulent air that surround moving objects. These turbulent flows are responsible for 50 percent of an aircraft is "drag," the aerodynamical force that opposes its motion.

In 1968, Kline organized a unique conference on turbulent boundary layer prediction that was held at Stanford. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International, this conference was "a landmark in the development of boundary layer technology."

"His work led to a whole field of research, both experimental studies and the development of computer simulations, that has greatly influenced the design of modern airplanes," said Peter Bradshaw, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and one of Kline's friends and colleagues.

Kline published 150 technical papers and three books, primarily in the fluid mechanics field. His research won him scientific medals in six countries. In 1981, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering -- the highest honor that a U.S. engineer can receive.

He also did extensive consulting with industry. He worked with a number of companies, including Ingersoll Rand, General Electric, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., General Motors Research Laboratories and United Technology Corp.

"His only hobby was his work. He liked nothing better," said Dr. Naomi Jeffries Kline, his wife of 20 years and a practicing psychotherapist.

Behind Kline's hard-charging engineer's demeanor lurked a rich vein of kindness, say friends and colleagues. When he became concerned that the university environment did not provide adequate emotional support for its people, for example, he helped launch a local chapter of the Support Group Network, a non-profit group with the goal of helping individuals provide each other with mutual support and encouragement.

Kline was so immersed in the culture of engineering that he had a habit of sprinkling his speech with mechanical metaphors, like "chugging along," recalled Robert McGinn, chairman of the Science, Technology and Society program. Nevertheless, Kline's broad interests increasingly carried him beyond the boundaries of his discipline.

In the late 1960s, Kline became concerned that a significant intellectual gap existed in the curricula at Stanford and other major U.S. universities. He realized that studies of the ways that science and technology affect and are affected by social institutions and human values were virtually nonexistent, despite the importance of the subject. Long discussions in 1970 with Vincenti and two other professors led the four to create the Stanford Program in Values, Technology and Society (now Science, Technology and Society, or STS) devoted to understanding the nature and significance of technology and science in modern, industrial society. According to Vincenti, Kline was the driving force in the group.

"One of Steve's most admirable qualities," McGinn notes, "is that while continuing to do research in mechanical engineering, he also read widely in the humanities and social sciences and made important contributions in the STS field. Indeed, of the many scholars in the STS field around the world, Steve Kline was one of the very few who had profound, firsthand knowledge of engineering practice and brought that understanding to bear fruitfully on his STS scholarship. In so doing, he helped to establish engineering as a new area of STS studies."

Kline's most important single contribution, McGinn said, is his model for technological innovation. Kline felt that the dominant linear or "assembly line" model for research and development, with its assumption that investment in basic research will automatically be transformed into new technology, was not only simplistic, but actually harmful. So he developed what he called the "chain-link" model of innovation, which has been widely adopted in a number of disciplines both in the United States and abroad.

In 1985 Kline and economics Professor Nathan Rosenberg presented this model as part of an overview prepared for a national symposium on innovation sponsored by Stanford and the National Academy of Engineering. Contrary to popular wisdom, innovation is "inherently uncertain, somewhat disorderly, involves some of the most complex systems known, and may consist of changes of many sorts at many different places within the innovating organization," they wrote.

Kline also was concerned that the current approach toward higher education, one combining in-depth work in the student's major with assorted required courses in other subjects, was not adequate to provide an intellectual framework that students can use to embed the specialized information and theories that they learn. So in his final book Conceptual Foundations for Multidisciplinary Thinking (Stanford University Press, 1995), which he completed after becoming ill, Kline explored the relationships and conflicts among different disciplines and called for the development of an integrated conceptual framework that can link the specialist's expertise to the overall intellectual enterprise.

In 1996 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International bestowed its highest honor on Kline. The citation provides a capsule summary of Kline's professional life. It read: "For a lifetime of contributions to the engineering science of turbulent flows, for seminal contributions to the understanding of the fundamental structure of turbulent layers, and for leadership in articulation of the conceptual foundations of multidisciplinary thinking."

Kline is survived by his wife; his children from a previous marriage ­ David Kline of Boulder, Colo; Mark Kline of Indianapolis, Ind.; and Carolyn Kline of Seattle, Wash.; Mrs. Kline's children from a previous marriage ­ Keith Glasson of Fremont, Calif.; Gordon Glasson of San Carlos, Calif.; and Lisa Hewitt of Lincoln, Calif.; and grandchildren Zachary, Caitlin, Stephanie and Nicholas Kline, Cameron Sharpe, Lauren and Justin Glasson, and Emma Hewitt.

Kline requested no flowers. Charitable donations may be made to either the Stephen J. Kline Scholarship Fund, Science, Technology and Society Program, Building 370, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2120 (checks should be made out to Stanford University) or the Fremont Good Shepherd Home, 1335 Mowry Ave., Fremont, CA 94538.


By David F. Salisbury

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints