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Taylor's career took wing with WWI plane engine testing

Although he is mentally alert, it is no longer easy for C. Fayette Taylor to carry on a conversation and, when asked about aspects of his life, he is likely to refer a visitor to his 1974 autobiographical book, Growing Up With the Twentieth Century.

In the introduction is a passage that perhaps best sums up his view of the 100 years he has lived, which span the last six years of the 19th century and nearly all of the 20th:

"At least for me, it is hard to imagine new developments that will change our life style more drastically than have the automobile, the telephone, electric power and light, the mechanization of farming, motion pictures, radio, television and the development of weapons of war of unimaginable power and range. Not one of these devices was in general use, and many were undreamed of, when I first became aware of the world around me."

In person, he adds, smiling, "I saw Haley's Comet twice." (It appeared in this century in 1910 and 1986.)

Fayette Taylor was born in New York City-most unusually for his time, in a hospital. But that was only because the hospital was owned by his grandfather, a physician, as was Professor Taylor's father.

His family moved to Montclair, NJ, when he was 11 and he graduated from high school there. In 1915 he received a bachelor of philosophy degree from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, and five years later he obtained the degree of mechanical engineer from Yale.

His career-long concern with engines, particularly aircraft engines, began during World War I when, as a young Navy officer, he was put in charge of airplane engine testing at the Navy's Aeronautical Engine Laboratory in Washington. Later, as a civilian, he held a similar position for three years with the Army Air Corps at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio. And it was there, he recalled, that he met Orville Wright.

Orville and his brother had first flown at Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903, when Professor Taylor was nine years old, and did many of their subsequent trials near Dayton.

Professor Taylor remembers his excitement when he first read of their accomplishments as a boy in a magazine. When he showed the article to his father, he recalls in his book, his father said flatly, "I don't believe it." It was an attitude shaped by many false claims for flying machines.

After completing his work with the Army, Professor Taylor joined the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, from 1923 to 1926, as an engineer in charge of airplane engine design and and development. It was a time when the company was involved in developing the air-cooled "Whirlwind" engine used on Charles Lindberg's historic flight across the Atlantic and Richard Byrd's flight to the North Pole.

Professor Taylor came to MIT in 1926 as associate professor aeronautical engineering. He was promoted to professor and acting head of the course in 1929. A few years later he was made professor of automotive engineering, in charge of instruction and research in internal combustion engines.

Throughout his career at MIT, Professor Taylor worked in tandem with one of his four brothers, Edward S. Taylor, who had received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1924.

On receiving his own faculty appointment, Profesor Taylor invited his brother to join him on the aeronautical engineering staff. "Fortunately," he said later, "the MIT authorities accepted this rather blatant act of nepotism."

Together, they built a teaching and research program in airplane and other types of internal combustion engines in a laboratory named for the man who provided the funds for its building and equipment, Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors.

Edward Taylor, who rose to the rank of professor without benefit of a graduate degree, an unusual circumstance even then, founded and headed the Gas Turbine Laboratory after World War II, playing a key role in the development of the jet engine. He died in 1991 at the age of 88, ending what Fayette Taylor described at his death as "an intimate professional personal relationship that lasted 65 years."

Fayette Taylor's accomplishments included the writing of a standard textbook, The Internal Combustion Engine in Theory and Practice, which is still giving him royalties.

His parallel career as an artist and particularly in metal sculpture took on greater momentum after his retirement in 1965. He had devoted much time to painting and drawing since early childhood, and later received formal art training, studying under several well known artists. His work has been shown extensively in exhibitions and galleries, and is now in private collections and museums. Some of it is at MIT, including a stainless-steel sculpture hanging in the faculty club.

Professor Taylor had still another interest. A pianist, he often played classical music with three or four other musicians. It was, he remarked, "what I liked best."

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 4).

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