Purdue ME Legends and Lore

As Purdue's oldest engineering school, Mechanical Engineering has had its fair share of legends, lore, and unforgettable characters. In this excerpt from a 1995 booklet, we share some of the more interesting stories gathered from the recollections of students, professors, and alumni from the past 150 years.


by E. J. Tangerman (BSME '29) 

There are still a few of us alive who remember Eaglebeak and his prominent proboscis. 

Eaglebeak of course knew his nickname and didn't mind it, which was just one of the peculiarities of the late George H. Shepard, a retired Navy officer and a professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering back in the late '20s and early '30s. His special area was industrial management, which included the then-popular time-and-motion studies, and I had him for several courses in my senior year, 1929. 

On one occasion we had been assigned a time-and-motion study to be done by teams of two. On the day reports were due, our team had none - the only faulty team. When Eaglebeak mentioned our dilatoriness, my partner, an impulsive Irishman, was quick with this excuse: "We, like most of the other teams, were going to do a study on shaving, but we found to our chagrin that our beards are not yet growing fast enough for an adequate series of test times." 

Eaglebeak smiled but was quite definite: "By next class period, you turn in your study or take a zero." 

The only thing I could think of in the emergency was to study the speed with which one could take off and put on pants. So we lined up several fraternity pledges and set to work, with trousers ranging from Army olive drabs with their laced bottoms to the then-popular Oxford bags, which might have cuffs measuring as much as 22 inches around. Our results purported to show that the 18-inch Oxford bag was fastest and easiest to don, and the Army pants the hardest. The 22-inch Oxford bag had a tendency to wrap around the donning leg and slow up the process. 

I dutifully drew up a chart plotting time against cuff opening and added some blue-sky suggestions for speeding up the process, one of which was: "If the buttons are sewn on with sufficient security and buttonholes are sufficiently large, the trousers can be doffed rapidly by simply grasping the belt line at the top front and separating the hands." (This was before the zipper, which, by the way, I mentioned and discarded as impractical!) 

Eaglebeak underscored the sentence with red ink and wrote in the margin " ... but is likely to cause embarrassment at inopportune moments." This statement was graced with an asterisk, and at the bottom of the page was the explanation: "In the Navy a captain is allowed one button open, an admiral the whole works. All subordinate officers are required to have buttons sewed on tightly and buttonholes of sufficient smallness to ensure perfect security at all times." 

He gave the study a grade of 116. (Eaglebeak hated the numerical grading system and took a fall out of it at every opportunity.) One of the class members saw the grade and immediately protested. Eaglebeak was utterly bland. He said: "It was a well-executed study and report, meriting 100%. It was late one class session, so I deducted 9% . But it included a curve drawing, which was something more than I had requested, so I gave it a bonus 25%." 

That settled the matter for the nonce. But the same student, Charlie, who was a grubber that none of us liked, asked at the end of the semester if he could bring a typewriter to the final, protesting that he thought much better on a typewriter. 

Said Eaglebeak: "I have permitted reference texts and any other matter to be brought to my finals, so as far as I am concerned, you can bring and use a typewriter. If your classmates object, that is a matter between you and them." 

Charlie brought a typewriter and began to type his final. After a few minutes of that noise, several of us got up, tossed Charlie's typewriter out the window, and dumped him after it - from a second-floor classroom into evergreen bushes. Charlie limped back in and completed his exam in ink, like the rest of us. 

Lord bless Eaglebeak's memory. He made classes memorable. And he knew his subjects.

Pig Radiant

adapted from Comets Amongst the Stars: Personal Memoirs of the Founding Director of the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, by William E. Fontaine

In the early 1950s, before the idea of Herrick Laboratories was truly born, Fred Andrews, an animal science professor, and I enlisted the help of mechanical engineering professor Wilmer Sibbitt to assist in a study of the heat-transfer characteristics of swine. 

Animals in an open field are generally subjected to all three types of heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. We knew how to measure conduction and convection, because we knew the appropriate coefficients required to compute that part of a hog's total heat transfer. However, we needed to determine the heat transferred to a hog through radiation. We guessed that the coefficient would be similar to that of a cylinder, but we wanted a more accurate value. 

Fred supplied a 200-pound hog. It was killed, embalmed, and delivered to the mechanical engineering building. Our job was to measure the heat transferred to the animal via radiation on a summer day. 

In order to measure the total surface area of the hog from a point above the hog, we mounted it upside down from the ceiling of the laboratory. Using an optical planimeter, we measured the area of the hog that could be seen from several positions on the perimeter of a circle inscribed on the floor and the computed the configuration factor for the hog from those areas.

It took more than a week to obtain the necessary data, and by the time we finished, our laboratory - in fact, the entire basement of the mechanical engineering building - had developed a most unpleasant odor.

Upon computing the configuration factor, we discovered that it was almost identical to that of a cylinder: we could have used a cylinder in figuring the heat transfer due to radiation and still remained within an acceptable margin of error. Hence our work was for naught!

A Tisket, a Tasket, a Prof is in the Casket

by Victor Goldschmidt, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Marion Scott, Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering

During the World War II years, an ME professor was conducting research with Hillenbrand Industries on the design of caskets and a means of effectively sealing them to be waterproof. One day the professor, who had a bottle stashed in his lab and who was fond of imbibing, got tipsy - and then drowsy. He decided to climb into the casket to take a nap.

The professor was jolted from a deep sleep by a sudden noise. Harry Solberg, the head of the School of Mechanical Engineering at the time, was escorting a guest through the building's facilities and had stopped by the professor's lab. The professor shot up out of the casket, scaring the living daylights out of his uninvited guests.

What occurred between him and his boss after that episode remains unknown. 

Hawk-eyed Hockema 

by Marshall C. Harrold (BSME '31) 

In the 1930s era, one of the most popular profs in mechanical engineering was Frank Hockema. On final exams he always had essay questions that made you fill one of those exam folders to the last line or into another copy. No time off for quick answers. 

During one final exam I was well into a second folder, along about page seven or eight, when I added in parentheses, "How can you read all this stuff? If you see this, I will give you a quarter." With a large lecture class, the stack of exam booklets must have been formidable. 

A couple of days later I met Frank in the hall. 

"You got an A," he said. "And you owe me a quarter." 

Home, Home on the Range 

by Richard D. Freeman (BSATR '50) 

Around 1943 I worked for George Hawkins on Purdue's machine-gun range. Hawkins, a mechanical engineering professor and later dean of engineering, was the big boss of the program, which had been set up by the U.S. Army ordnance people to study ways to make the guns fire more rapidly. He was a dedicated, intense kind of guy. 

I was one of the high school kids involved in the project. We were kind of like slaves, but it was fun being a slave there. We got the guns ready to fire, polished the brass afterward, and cleaned the guns. 

The range was originally set up at a corner of the ME building, and the guns were fired diagonally across the square toward the American Railway building. They made a horrendous amount of noise, and people started worrying about ricochets, so George looked around and got some land for the range by Ross-Ade Stadium. There were three concrete buildings, and we fired inside a firing room, the bullets traveling the length of one of the long, narrow buildings. Even in that location the sound of the guns could be heard throughout West Lafayette. 

The ammunition was very heavy - almost all of it was .50-caliber - and so was the rest of the equipment. One day I was moving a battery that weighed around 20 pounds, and instead of easing it to the floor, I carelessly dropped it from about six inches above the floor. 

Acid squirted straight up into my eye. I let out a scream.

George was all over me like a wet blanket. He had me by the scruff of the neck, took me over to a sink where you wash out the mops, and flushed out my eyes. Then he hurried me over to see Doc Miller, a gruff physician whose office was in the basement of the administration building. "Dumb kid!" said the doc.

George Hawkins' rapid response saved my sight. He was a man to ride the river with.

Anything You Can Carry

by William K. LeBold (PhD '57), Professor of Freshman Engineering 

One of my favorite anecdotes is about Dean George Hawkins. In 1951, when he was a mechanical engineering professor, George was teaching thermodynamics in an era when some faculty members were trying to eliminate closed-book exams. 

He announced to his class, "You can bring anything to the final you can carry." One of his students came in with a Tau Beta Pi senior on his back. George carried out his part of the bargain, but he was a little more cautious the next time he gave an open-book exam! 

Getting Aloft: The Purdue Glider Club

by Bob Antheil (BSME '33) 

At Purdue my buddies and I used to huddle try to dream up something that was "different." Well, one time we came up with a honey for its day: a glider club. 

We couldn't seem to generate any faculty backing, but we decided to go ahead anyhow, and we put an ad in the Exponent that we would have an organizational meeting in old Heavilon Hall. We were delighted with a turn-out of about 25 students. We elected Nelson Swarr (BSEE '34) president, and I was elected treasurer, with the job of collecting enough money to buy a glider. We made an assessment of $10 per member. 

By the fall of my senior year we had 11 members, and I had collected the grand sum of $125 to buy the glider. Somebody came up with an ad in the South Bend paper where a man had two Rainbow gliders that he would be glad to sell for $250 apiece. It seemed hopeless, so Nelse and Fred "Whitey" Motsch (BSChE '33) and I had a meeting in the old Lahr bar to decide what to do. 

Those were Prohibition days, but the Lahr bar served "Near Beer," and Whitey was adept at slipping test tubes of alcohol from the chem lab into his jacket pocket. Some of his alcohol put into the top of the bottle and shaken up well made a pretty potent drink. It tasted awful, but after a couple of these, the glider problem didn't seem so impossible. 

The consensus of the meeting was that I should call the guy up and offer him $125, cash, for both gliders. So I did. Surprise! We had a deal. The man delivered both gliders to West Lafayette the following Monday. 

One of our members talked his dad into letting us fly in his wheat field nearby, and since the field was perfectly flat, we elected the shock-cord method of getting the gliders into the air. We bought an ancient ragtop Buick for $20 and were ready to go. 

As it turned out, having two gliders was an asset. Almost every flight wound up in some kind of damage, and one glider was always being repaired while the other was flying.

No Holes Barred 

by L.B. Ritchey (BSME '36) 

In the early '30s there was a no-smoking rule on campus. ME professor Dave Clark, who was the nicest guy around but a little on the absentminded side, smoked a pipe. He sometimes forgot not to smoke the pipe on campus, and when he was told about it, he would stick the pipe in his coat pocket. All of his overcoats had a hole burned through each pocket because he had forgotten to take the pipe out when he got to his office.

Egg Bandits

adapted from Comets Amongst the Stars: Personal Memoirs of the Founding Director of the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, by William E. Fontaine 

In the early 1960s, as Herrick Laboratories began preparing to add an anechoic chamber to its facilities, we found that the designated site for the chamber was in demand by other groups on campus. 

For example, the fine arts department wanted the room for a sculpting laboratory. Others in the nearby School of Agriculture, such as faculty in the poultry department, felt that they had a stronger claim to the room since it had once been the livestock pavilion. 

Before construction of the anechoic chamber could begin, a large roadblock was thrown in our path. J. Holmes Martin, head of the poultry department, had hopes of studying the effects of various diets on egg production and feed efficiency in laying hens. He moved a construction crew and materials into the pavilion and constructed a series of cages almost overnight that literally filled the entire pavilion. Martin now had squatter's rights and refused to move. The question was, how to get rid of him? 

My colleague Art Smith and I considered the problem and concluded that the only way to send Martin packing was to ruin the experiment. It was an easy task; all one had to do was steal the eggs. 

Art and I removed the eggs from the pens every day. One would gather the eggs while the other stood watch. We never stole the eggs at the same time but varied our escapades over a complete 24-hour period. They never did catch us. The hens were quite productive; we had nearly a water bucket full of eggs to dispose of every 24 hours. We were giving eggs away to everyone we knew. 

One morning I came to work after emptying the pens of eggs late the night before to find a big sign hung over the pens reading THESE CHICKENS HAVE BEEN FED RADIOACTIVE DIETS. 

This made no difference to us. The disappearance of the eggs continued until Martin finally gave up and moved his experiment out of the pavilion. Construction of our new acoustic laboratory was initiated immediately thereafter.

Have your own tales you want to share? Send them to Jared Pike: jaredpike@purdue.edu

You can read the entire Purdue Engineering: Legends & Lore booklet here!