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Hoyt Hottel dies at 95; was expert on energy, combustion

Professor Hoyt C. Hottel
Professor Hoyt C. Hottel

Professor Emeritus Hoyt Clarke Hottel made fun of his tendency to procrastinate at a chemical engineering dinner in 1992 while quoting pianist/TV personality Victor Borge to show that it was not necessarily a bad trait.

"Plan to die young and keep planning," said Professor Hottel, who directed the Fuels Research Laboratory for 35 of his 76 years at MIT. "Just put off the act as long as possible."

Professor Hottel, four weeks shy of his 90th birthday when he uttered those words, died August 18 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Winchester, MA. He was 95 years old.

An only child, he was born on January 15, 1903 in Salem, IN, and grew up near St. Louis. He once recalled watching Halley's Comet from his family's backyard on April 21, 1910, the day Mark Twain died. At the time, he remembered, "I thought I would never see Halley again because it would be another 76 years." He did, of course.

Professor Hottel, who finished high school at age 15, came to MIT in 1922 after receiving the BS in chemistry from the University of Indiana. He never left. After receiving the SM in chemical engineering in 1924, he served as director of the School of Chemical Engineering Practice (now called the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice) for a year and was an Institute Fellow in fuel and gas engineering for two years. He was named an assistant professor in 1928, associate professor in 1931 and full professor in 1941. In 1965 he was named the first Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering. He became professor emeritus in 1968.

MIT instituted the Hoyt C. Hottel Lectureship in 1985 and he delivered the inaugural lecture. The Hoyt C. Hottel Professorship in chemical engineering, established in 1995, is held by Professor Jack B. Howard.

An expert on fuels, combustion, radiant heat transmission and industrial furnaces, Professor Hottel co-authored three books, contributed sections to 15 others and wrote more than 150 technical papers while acquiring eight patents. He was a thesis advisor to Charles Stark Draper.


During that 1992 chemical engineering dinner, Professor Hottel shared with the audience a brief summary of his principles of teaching: "Beware that a student's spirit be not done to death by a formula, by teaching with answers cast in concrete. Be less concerned with technical content and timeliness -- I said less concerned, not unconcerned -- and less concerned with the completeness of coverage of your subject than with stretching the student's mind and stimulating him to self-teaching, hopefully continued through life."

In addition to his classroom duties, Professor Hottel was an original member and acting director of the Fuels Research Laboratory from 1929-34, when he was named director. He served in that capacity until 1968. He also chaired the MIT Research Committee on Solar Energy from 1938-64, and built three solar houses.

During World War II, he was chief of the National Defense Research Committee group that studied and developed incendiaries. He chaired the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project Panel on Thermal Radiation from 1949-56. In 1948, Professor Hottel received the Medal for Merit, a civilian award, for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States" for his World War II service. The British government honored him for his role in the war with the King's Medal for Service to the Cause of Freedom.

From 1956-67 he chaired the National Academy of Sciences Fire Research committee, which studied tactics to fight large fires, including forest fires and fire storms in urban areas. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Professor Hottel received many distinguished professional awards, including the Sir Alfred Egerton Gold Medal from the Combustion Institute (which he co-founded) and the Melchett Medal from the Institute of Fuel in Great Britain. He received the Max Jakob Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1966 and the Founders Award from the Institute of Chemical Engineers the next year. In 1975 he received the Farrington Daniels Award of the International Solar Energy Society. He was the founder and first chair of the American Flame Research Committee.

After he retired from MIT, Professor Hottel taught and lectured at many universities overseas, including the University of Newcastle inNew South Wales, Australia. He served on the National Academy of Sciences advisory group on Brazil and lectured on energy-related topics in South Africa. A grandchild often accompanied the Hottels on their overseas trips.

Professor Hottel was among 55 scientists from 13 countries who volunteered to visit the Soviet Union in 1984 as "good-faith witnesses" to guarantee the return of ailing dissident Yelena Bonner if she were allowed to leave the country for medical treatment. Dr.Bonner and her husband, Andrei Sakharov, were banished to the city of Gorky in 1980 after criticizing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. He never visited the Soviet Union.


Away from academia, Professor Hottel took great pride in his extensive vegetable and flower gardens. He was a prodigious and skilled woodworker who built two beautiful hardwood coffee tables and crafted his own Christmas decorations over the years. He also built kayaks for his daughters to paddle on Mystic Lake where they lived. One of his proudest achievements was climbing Mount Teton in Wyoming with several younger MIT colleagues when he was 50 years old.

"He was a man of so many interests," recalled his daughter, Lois H. Wood of Lebanon, NH. "Classical music certainly was at the top of his list -- he enjoyed the Boston Symphony regularly with my mother, a singer, for as many years as I can remember. He had a nearly perfect ear, and could sing any song using the diatonic scale. Any song."

For fun, he wrote, photographed and edited two movies with his MIT colleagues and the MIT Drama Club, "Clementine" in 1934 and "Henry's Wooling" in 1937.

Professor Hottel was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Chi Sigma honor societies and the Indiana University chapter of Phi Gamma Delta. He was an active member of the Winchester Unitarian Church.

The family summered on Sutton Island in Maine and Professor Hottel was a member of the Harbor Club in Seal Harbor for 30 years.

In addition to his daughter, Lois, Professor Hottel is survived by a son, Hoyt Jr., known as Clarke, of Mattapoisett, MA; two other daughters, Barbara H. Willis of Severna Park, MD, and Elizabeth H. Barrett of San Diego; 10 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Professor Hottel's wife of 65 years, the former Nellie L. Rich of Boston, died in 1994.

A memorial service will be held at 11am on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Winchester Unitarian Church, Mystic Street, Winchester, MA.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 26, 1998.

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