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Mann looks back on engineering design career at MIT

Professor Emeritus Robert W. Mann led his audience on a good-natured, whirlwind tour of 50 years of design and engineering work at a Distinguished Alumnus Lecture on March 12.

Professor Mann used slides, notes and spontaneous comments about life at MIT in his lecture, "A Half-Century Portfolio on Engineering Design." In just under an hour, he divided his impressive career into three basic segments: the missiles, the muscles and the blind.

Dr. Mann is Whitaker Professor of Biomedical Engineering Emeritus and a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He retired as professor and director of the Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation in 1992.

Introducing himself to the group of about 60, which included former colleagues and students as well as current students, Professor Mann touched on his early education from a carpenter grandfather and vocational school in Brooklyn, NY. He repeatedly spoke of his pride in the many students who produced theses while under his tutelage. "MIT students have made it possible for me to stand before you," he said.

Professor Mann came to MIT as a student on the GI Bill in 1947. Working in the Dynamic Analysis and Control Laboratory, he conducted research on internal power systems, eventually leading to the development of Sparrow I and III and Hawk missiles.

In the 1950s, he concentrated on the main problems with design itself--"all that drawing and erasing; all that time." He soon combined his drafting and design experience with his computer knowledge to inaugurate the Computer-Aided Design Project in 1959. A slide of a programmer's page of cramped, handwritten notes demonstrated life in the "very lugubrious" FORTRAN era.

Professor Mann discussed his work in the 1960s on developing technology to help people with disabilities, referring to his continuity of interest from "powering rockets to powering people." In 1964, he inaugurated the Sensory Aids Evaluation and Development Project inspired by John Kenneth Dupress, who had lost his sight and one arm in the Battle of the Bulge. English-to-Braille computer translation systems and electronic travel aids for blind persons resulted from that project.

"Then we asked, 'What torque or velocity does it take to raise a tankard to the lips?'" Thus did he lightly refer to the work for which he may be best known outside MIT--his collaboration with Liberty Mutual in developing the "Boston Arm," the first biomedical prosthetic device. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see even an amputated arm still has muscle [above the lost limb], which the brain still directs," the former rocket scientist observed.

Other slides showed the Boston Arm, the Utah Elbow and the MIT Knee, developed by Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers. Professor Flowers, shown modeling the MIT Knee as a student, was seated near the front of the room.

Professor Mann's rehabilitation research and recent musculoskeletal studies, together with related computer-assisted surgery, were based in the Newman Laboratory, which he founded in 1975 and directed, along with the Harvard-MIT Rehabilitation Engineering Center, until his retirement.

He illustrated developments in now-common hip replacement surgery by showing images of cartilage in various states, hips and hip sockets, and the sizing device for the hip-ball he designed so surgeons would no longer need to "kinda put 'em in and squish 'em around" to get the right fit.

"Orthopedic surgery is just cabinet-making with bones, isn't it?" Professor Mann quipped.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 19, 1997.

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