Before the silicon boom in the Santa Clara Valley, the high-tech industry was aerospace engineering. And Milton Van Dyke was at the forefront of it.

Milton Van Dyke portrait

Milton Van Dyke was remembered for his creativity, ethical integrity and love of the outdoors. (Image credit: Courtesy of Nina Van Dyke)

“To those of us working in the industry, Milton was a ‘star,’ arguably the brightest star,” wrote his former graduate student Leonard Schwartz in a published biography.

Van Dyke, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and of aeronautics and astronautics, and a major contributor to the field of fluid mechanics, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on May 10. He was 87.

Multi-talented from a young age

Born in Chicago in 1922, Van Dyke grew up in a series of small towns in the West and Midwest. Both his parents were college graduates, and his father taught mechanical engineering. Van Dyke went to high school in Portales, N.M., where he edited the school newspaper and starred in the class play.

He was awarded one of two National Scholarships from Harvard University. He studied engineering sciences there, and gradated in three years summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. While he was there, he also found time to climb with the mountaineering club, play second violin in the school orchestra, write and produce a play for the Harvard radio workshop and participate in the American Cryptogram Association.

His studies at Harvard were accelerated in part because of the entry of the United States into World War II during his sophomore year. As soon as he graduated, he was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which later became NASA) to work at Ames Laboratory, a new site at the Moffett Field Naval Air Station near Mountain View, Calif.

Wartime engineer

Arriving at Ames in 1943, Van Dyke was assigned to work on fluid dynamics problems involving high-speed wind tunnels only a foot high. Since he was the smallest of his research group, much of his time was spent inside the test section of the tunnels.

While he was at NACA, Van Dyke made important contributions to the understanding of airplane wing design. He also authored a formally anonymous report on compressible flow that is one of the most used NACA publications of all time.

After the war, he won a National Research Council scholarship to study aeronautics and applied mathematics at Caltech. He enrolled in 1946, and received his master’s and doctoral degrees by 1949. He did one more year of postdoctoral research there, then returned to the Ames Laboratory in 1950.

Supersonic flows

During his second stint at the Ames Laboratory, Van Dyke made major contributions to the theory of supersonic flow, the movement of air around objects going faster than the speed of sound.

“It is fair to say that the necessary theoretical predictions of the fluid flow during atmospheric entry, for an entire generation of spacecraft and missiles, including the Apollo vehicle used by the astronauts as they returned from the moon, were made using the Van Dyke-Gordon algorithm,” Schwartz wrote.

The findings of this work were published as the very first NASA Technical Report in 1959.

In the spring of 1958, Van Dyke was invited to teach, speaking French, as a visiting professor at the University of Paris. He accepted even though he didn’t speak the language. He went to the first meeting of a local French class and was told not to expect to learn French in a year. His response was, “I need to be lecturing at the Sorbonne in the fall.” So he studied on his own using books, newspapers and the songs of Jacqueline François and Edith Piaf. By the fall, he knew enough French to give a 23-lecture course entirely in the language.

Stanford teacher and publisher

While in Paris, Van Dyke received an offer to join the Stanford faculty as a full professor to help build the new aeronautics department. He accepted and joined the faculty in 1959.

During his time at Stanford, Van Dyke became well known as a teacher and author, particularly in the area of perturbation methods in fluid mechanics. He taught a popular course on the subject, and also wrote Perturbation Methods in Fluid Mechanics, first published in 1964, which remains a standard reference work in the field.

Van Dyke had a great passion for making learning material accessible to students. In the publication of his book, he added a phrase to his contract with the publisher, Academic Press, stipulating that the book should cost no more than 3 cents a page, equivalent to $7 for the entire book.

The book went through five printings, selling about 8,000 copies, before the Academic Press let it go out of print. Van Dyke decided to republish the book himself. His new publishing company, Parabolic Press, published an annotated edition of the book in 1975. He maintained the $7 price for many years, which included shipping anywhere in the world. Until his death he was still selling the book out of his home at a price that just barely covered costs.

Van Dyke also contributed greatly to the fluid mechanics community by co-founding the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics in 1968. He edited the journal until 2000.

As an adviser to graduate students, Van Dyke was known for the care and attention he paid to each of them. Schwartz recalled, “Milton was quite generous with his time and carefully followed the work of each of his students. … It seemed as if he was always in his office, and I don’t recall ever making an appointment to see him.” If someone else was in the office, “a person would be invited in anyway … and the conversation would be enlarged to include everyone.”

Schwartz also noted that Van Dyke’s personal contribution to his graduate students’ work was quite substantial but consistently downplayed. He was never listed as a co-author when student dissertation work was published. He supervised 33 doctoral dissertations and five engineering theses.

In 1958 he discovered, at a kiosk in Paris, Atlas des phénomènes optiques, a collection of black-and-white photographs from optical research. It became one of Van Dyke’s dreams to publish a similar collection of photographs depicting fluid motion. In 1982, his vision was fulfilled in An Album of Fluid Motion, which he designed jointly with his wife, Sylvia, on their dining room table, and published through Parabolic Press. The book is a collection of 400 images of fluid mechanics, and is equally appropriate for coffee tables and courses in fluid mechanics. It has sold over 40,000 copies and has a Russian edition.

Van Dyke retired from his joint appointment in mechanical engineering and aeronautics and astronautics in 1992. He lived on the Stanford campus until his death.

Van Dyke’s son Russell recalled that his dad had an “insatiable creativity and enthusiasm for building things” and a love for the outdoors. In addition to building much of the furniture in his first house, he constructed a wooden train that his children could ride around the backyard. He was an active member of the Sierra Club for many years, and one of his favorite weekend activities was taking his kids camping at Pinnacles National Monument.

His daughter, Nina, remembered his ethical integrity. “He was rather a private person, but if he felt that a wrong had been committed, no matter how small or how large, he was absolutely stubborn about seeing that it was made right,” she said.

Van Dyke is survived by his wife of 48 years, Sylvia; his sons Russell, Eric, Christopher, Brooke and Byron; his daughter, Nina; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for September at the Stanford Faculty Club. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Milton Van Dyke’s name be made to an open space or environmental organization.

Jess McNally is an intern at the Stanford News Service.