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Shih-Ying Lee, longtime mechanical engineering professor, inventor, and entrepreneur, dies at 100

Retired MIT professor specialized in measurement and instrumentation, held 20 patents, and launched two companies.
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Professor Shih-Ying Lee enjoyed participating in the MIT Sailing Club. This photo was taken in 1942.
Professor Shih-Ying Lee enjoyed participating in the MIT Sailing Club. This photo was taken in 1942.
Photo courtesy of the Lee family

Shih-Ying Lee, a longtime MIT mechanical engineering professor and expert in process control, measurement, and instrumentation, passed away peacefully on July 2 in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Lee '43, SCD '45 had recently celebrated his 100th birthday in April.

Lee’s career spanned over six decades and included positions in both academia and industry. In 2015, he provided an overview of his professional and personal achievements in his autobiography entitled, “From Tsinghua to MIT — My Journey from Education to Entrepreneurship.”

Born in Beijing (known at the time as Beiping), China, on April 30, 1918, Lee was drawn to engineering at an early age. He received a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University in the midst of World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War. Upon graduating, Lee worked as a bridge designer and hydraulic power research engineer for the Chinese government.

Eager to continue his education in the United States, Lee made a harrowing journey halfway around the world in the midst of global conflict. He flew first to India, then took a ship to the U.S. via South America. In 1942 he enrolled at MIT, where he received master's and doctor of science degrees in civil engineering.

After a two-year stint at Cram and Ferguson Architects, Lee returned to MIT as a research engineer in the Dynamic Analysis and Control Lab. He joined the faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1952. Throughout his tenure as a professor, Lee made extensive improvements to several courses including 2.171 (at the time, Fluid Power Control) and 2.173 (Measurement and Control).

Lee’s interest in measurement and instrumentation extended beyond the classrooms of MIT. He shared an entrepreneurial spirit and interest in startups with his brother, MIT professor of aeronautics Yao-Tzu Li SM '38, SCD '39. In 1953, they co-founded Dynisco Inc., which manufactured pressure-measuring instruments. To focus on his work at MIT, Lee sold Dynisco to the American Brake Shoe Company in 1960.  

Less than a decade later, the brothers formed Setra Systems Inc., which specialized in instruments for sensing and measuring. The company designed and manufactured devices such as accelerometers, pressure transducers, and laboratory balances. These instruments, and all other products produced by Setra, had variable capacitance sensors, an application co-developed by Lee and his brother.

In 1974, Lee retired after 22 years on the mechanical engineering faculty at MIT. For the next three decades, much of his professional focus was on Setra Systems, where he served as chair and chief executive officer in the 1990s. Many of his patents involved pressure and force sensing products developed at Setra.

Throughout his career, Lee received a number of prestigious awards in recognition of his many contributions to the fields of process control, instrumentation, and sensing. In 1981 he received the Rufus Oldenburger Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for his permanent contribution to the field of automatic control. Several years later, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for “original research on control valve stability, for innovative dynamic measurement instrumentation, and for successful entrepreneurial commercialization of his inventions.” He also received the Technical Excellence Award from the International Society of Weighing and Measurement for his introduction of a new force and weight sensing method.

Lee was married to his first wife, May Kao Lee, for 22 years until her death. He was married to his second wife, Lena Yin Lee for 45 years until her death in May 2018. In 1991, Lee and Lena established the Shih-Ying (1943) & Lena Y. Lee Endowed Fellowship Fund in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The scholarship was most recently awarded to a graduate student in 2016.

Later in his life, Lee enjoyed keeping up with the latest personal computing devices, staying fit with his daily walks and exercises, connecting with his children and grandchildren, and playing Scrabble with his wife at their home in Lincoln. He is survived by their four children: Carol Lee; David Lee ME '73, PhD ’80; Linda Lee PhD '85; and Eileen Brooks. 

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