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Mechanical engineering professor Joseph LeConte Smith Jr. dies at 83

Longtime director of Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory taught at MIT from 1956 to 2008.
Joseph LeConte Smith Jr.
Joseph LeConte Smith Jr.

Joseph LeConte Smith Jr., the Samuel C. Collins Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, died on May 7 at the age of 83.

After completing his undergraduate education in mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, Smith served in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army before beginning his graduate work at MIT in thermodynamics and fluid mechanics under the late Joseph H. Keenan. Starting as an instructor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1956, he rose through the academic ranks to become Ford Professor of Engineering in 1991. In 1994, he was the first faculty member to hold the Samuel P. Collins Senior Faculty Chair, named after the founder of the MIT Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory, which Smith directed from 1964 until his retirement in 2008.

Smith was a consummate mechanical engineer who made innovative contributions to both education and research. In 1967, he introduced an innovative approach to undergraduate education in thermodynamics that prevails to this day. In graduate thermodynamics, he brought the thermodynamics subject introduced by Keenan, his mentor, into the 21st century.

In collaboration with Ernest Cravalho, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and of health science and technology, he developed the textbook Engineering Thermodynamics. Along with Cravalho, professor of mechanical engineering John Brisson, and Gareth McKinley, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation, he wrote the comprehensive course notes for the mechanical engineering core courses on thermal fluids that integrate the subject areas of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

In the MIT tradition of mens et manus (mind and hand), Smith was famous for his hands-on approach to engineering. He viewed the world as a problem in engineering design — so much so that when asked why any given natural phenomenon took the form found in nature, his standard reply was, “Because that’s the way I would build it.”

In the lab, this hands-on approach earned him the respect and admiration of the many students who worked with him over the years: He shared with them his rare ability to translate new ideas into engineering prototypes. His graduate students not only explored new ideas in theory, but they also built working hardware to test these ideas. In a recent cryogenics symposium held in his honor, many of Smith’s former graduate students acknowledged the important role he played in their own careers.

Smith’s research spanned fundamental areas of thermodynamics, heat transfer, electromagnetics and cryogenics, and he was able to integrate these diverse fields to advance the practice of engineering. His success in this process was perhaps best manifested in his work with Gerald Wilson, the Vannevar Bush Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, on the development of a superconducting generator. In recognition of his many contributions to the practice of mechanical engineering, Smith was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

A memorial service will be held on June 1 at 2 p.m., at Trinity Episcopal Church, 81 Elm St., Concord, Mass. His family will host visiting hours at the Concord Funeral Home, 74 Belknap St., Concord, Mass., on Friday, May 31, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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