History of the Rohsenow Laboratory



Origins and Early History of the Heat Measurements Laboratory: 1870 to 1933

Our laboratory began in the Physics Department during the earliest days of the Institute, in what was then called the Physical Laboratory.

Until that time, physics was generally taught through lectures and recitations, with experimental work confined to classroom demonstrations. William Barton Rogers, MIT's founder, proposed in 1864 that the Laboratory Method of teaching physics be adopted. A plan for this was prepared by Professor Edward C. Pickering in 1869 and implemented during the fall of 1870. Professor Pickering gives a detailed account of the development and instruction in the new Physical Laboratory in the President's Report of 1876. Pickering notes that

Several of the more advanced institutions have adopted our system [of instruction] in the form in which we use it, and at many others its adoption is strongly desired.

At this time, the lab was used for "regular students, additional classes, and original research." Pickering lists some of the experiments done by regular students in the third year class, including the following.

In subsequent years, the demands on the Physical Laboratory grew steadily. The lab included work on a range of physical phenomena that were of considerable importance to students majoring in engineering and other scientific disciplines, notably heat measurements, electrical measurements, and areas of chemistry. In that era, students from, say, mining engineering, performed a significant part of their lab work in the Physical Laboratories. (Electrical engineering, as Course 6, and Physics, as Course 8, were at the time a single department.) During the next two decades the Physical Laboratory grew and subdivided repeatedly, coming to occupy many separate spaces, each devoted to measurements of a particular character.

The collection of rooms composing the Physical Lab came to be known as the Rogers Laboratory of Physics in 1872. The MIT Catalog of 1885-6 describes the experimental courses in physics, noting that

...heat and electrical measurements occupy the [final] and more difficult part of the course, more advanced instruction, however, being provided in both.

It goes on to say

Original investigation is encouraged as far as possible, and the result has been a considerable number of published memoirs.

In the mid-1880's, Professor Charles R. Cross, the head of Physics, proposed that Heat Measurements become a separate laboratory. The task of constructing the lab was taken up by Professor Silas W. Holman ('76), whose previous work had included the lecture course for third-year students on Heat, as well as experimental research in the area. He opened the Heat Measurements Laboratory in 1889. The President's Report for that year gives brief description of rationale for the new course:

The subject of heat measurements of various kinds, including the measurement of high temperatures, the determination of the calorific value of fuels, and similar important topics, is one of large practical importance, regarding which little information is now accessible to the student.

Professor Holman's ill health interrupted the initial development of the lab, but by 1891 the lab was well underway. Electric lighting was introduced to the labs in 1892, allowing "a considerable extension of working time" in all of the laboratories. Much new apparatus was acquired during 1893. No additional space was available for the Heat Measurements lab during its first eight years, as described in the President's Report of 1896,

...and so a narrow strip was taken from one of the rooms consistuting the laboratory of electrical engineering. This room, 16x29 ft, is all that we have now for this important work...The number of students taking Heat Measurements will be increased next year by the whole fourth-year class of Mining Engineering, which is likely to more than double the total number of those pursuing the subject. It is impossible to see how these needs are to be met.

Holman's health interrupted his work again in 1896, with the lectures in heat being given by Mr. Charles L. Norton '93 (later Professor Charles L. Norton). Holman became professor emeritus the following year, at the age of 41, and Norton took charge of the Lab for Heat Measurements. Norton energetically increased the apparatus in the lab, contructing during 1897 a comparator for thermometers and two new coal calorimeters (one of the Berthelot type), and acquiring a Heraeus thermo-electric pyrometer "for measuring melting points, furnace and flue temperatures, and general technical work in heat measurements."

The Heat Measurements Laboratory finally received additional space in 1898, more than doubling the size of the former room. In the President's Report of that year, it is noted that the need for additional space came not from the department of physics, but from the "constantly increasing instruction which this department offers to other courses --- in this instance to those of chemistry, chemical engineering, and mining engineering." This new space proved adequate for a few years, as mentioned in the 1899 report: "Notwithstanding the advanced character of the work it is at present taken by about seventy-five students, miners, chemists, and physicists. The equipment of the laboratory has increased and is now excellent, including much apparatus of original design and construction."

In 1902, Electrical Engineering became a separate department, and the some of the space freed by the removal of the Laboratory of Electrical Engineering was given over to the Laboratory of Heat Measurements. A number of photographs of the lab from this era exist, some of which can be viewed here: photo1, photo2, photo3, photo4. At this time, the lab was located in the Walker Building, at the corner of Bolyston and Clarendon Streets in Boston. Room 2A in the basement is identified on floor plans of the era as the Heat Measurements Laboratory. Its basement location provoked a satirical cartoon in Technique 1908, comparing it to Hell.

The President's Report of 1903 reports, with a pride verging on glee, the state of the expanded lab:

The original plans for the laboratory, made over fifteen years ago, have steadily been developed. Beginning with a modest equipment of one or two pyrometers, a fuel combustion bomb, and several standard thermometers and comparators, located in a very small room of the laboratory, it has three times outgrown its quarters, only now to find ample space in the former dynamo room. The equipment now comprises what is without a doubt the most complete collection of standard apparatus for heat measurements in existence for purposes of instruction and entirely sufficient for any purpose. In addition there is a large amount of original apparatus for instruction and research, especially of a technical nature.

The number of students taking the lab has increased from a half dozen in 1893 to about 200 in 1903. In 1893 a small part of the time of one assistant sufficed for the instruction then given, but now the major portion of the time of Professor Norton and the entire time of one assistant are hardly sufficient for that purpose.

The laboratory has become a standardizing laboratory in many lines of work, and has acquired a wide reputation for certain of this work. The cramped quarters hitherto occupied have prevented a more rapid growth in this direction, and it is believed that the present relief will be a great help in such work.

By 1903, the work in the Heat Measurements Lab, under Professor Norton, occupied 12 weeks of the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory course run by Professor E.F. Miller. The connection to Mechanical Engineering was to grow much stronger as time went by. It is interesting to note that both Norton and Miller went on to head their respective departments: Norton headed Physics from 1922 to 1930, and Miller headed ME from 1911 to 1933.

When MIT moved to Cambridge in 1916, all of the Rogers Laboratories moved into space described in 1933 as being in the northeast corner of Eastman Court. The labs remained in essentially the same configuration during the next seventeen years.

Laboratory Thermometers

Some of the photos of the 1904 lab show a black two-door cabinet on the wall (photo1, photo2). The cabinet was designed specifically to hold the lab's collection of specialized thermometers. It remained in the possession of the lab throughout the next century.

The thermometers in the cabinet were of the mercury-in-glass type. Many of them were designed for high-precision measurement within narrow temperature ranges. For example, one of the thermometers, measuring about two feet (60 cm) in length operated from 0 C to 5 C with a reading resolution of 0.01 C. The mercury bulb on this thermometer was nearly the size of an adult's thumb.

Many of the thermometers in the cabinet were made in the late 1800's. The faculty of the Institute during that era made a number of summer trips to Europe for the purpose of acquiring laboratory equipment. Some of these thermometers bear the maker's name and a date, as can be seen in the following photographs: thermometer photo1, thermometer photo2, thermometer photo3.

In 2001, MIT began a campaign to eliminate mercury instruments from its laboratories, so as to comply with environmental regulations. Rather than submitting the old instruments for destruction, Professor Lienhard offered the cabinet and its contents to the MIT Museum, which quickly accepted them. A few of these magnificent thermometers were placed on display in the Museum during 2002.

The Heat Measurements Lab goes to Mechanical Engineering: 1934 to 1955

By the early 1930's, teaching and research interests in Physics were moving steadily toward what came to be called "modern physics", and more classical or applied areas were given less emphasis. During this period, several units of the Physics department were transferred to the School of Engineering, among which the Photoelasticity and Heat Measurements Laboratories went to the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The Heat Measurement Laboratory moved to Mechanical Engineering in 1934. The director of the lab, Professor Gordon B. Wilkes '11, also moved to Mechanical Engineering, and he brought with him a set of five courses on Heat Measurements that he had previously offered in the Department of Physics. These were numbered 2.52 through 2.56. (A separate subject, 2.502, dealt with Heat Transmission). Building 7, the current home of the Rohsenow Laboratory, opened in the mid-1930's, and the Heat Measurements Laboratory appears to have relocated to the basement of that building shortly thereafter.

The head of Mechanical Engineering at this, Professor J.C. Hunsaker, described Wilkes' activities in the President's Reports of 1934-5 and 1935-6. In the first report, he mentions research on low temperature radiation in connection with reflective insulation, work for the American Gas Association on technologies for heating water, and work for ASTM on the techniques for measuring the thermal conductivity of refractories and insulating brick at high temperature. The second report follows.

The Heat Measurements Laboratory has added photoelectric control of temperature (+/- 0.01 C) to its apparatus for the determination of the rate of heat flow through insulating materials and walls. An apparatus has also been constructed for the precise measurement of the heat flow from flat surfaces. This measurement has recently become important due to the general use of reflective type insulation. The Laboratory is coöperating with the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers in a revision of the Heat Transmission Tables. The close coöperation between Professor Wilkes and others of the staff giving instruction in Heat Engineering has justified the transfer of the Heat Measurements Laboratory to this Department.

The 1934-5 MIT Bulletin includes a description of the ME's Heat Measurements Laboratory:

The Heat Measurements Laboratory is equipped primarily for research in pyrometry, thermal conductivity, thermal expansion, specific heat, heat of combustion, and refractories. It is well provided with means for measuring high temperatures, and contains furnaces and kilns for use with refractories, a refrigerating unit connected to an insulated room that can be cooled to -40 C, and much other equipment.

Several photographs taken during subsequent years show Wilkes at work in the laboratory (Wilkes photo1, Wilkes photo2). People who were associated with the lab during in the early 1950's have described Wilkes' organization of the space. Wilkes had set up experimental stations in the lab, each devoted specifically to a different type or technique of thermal measurement. The arrangement seems to have been relatively static.

The Heat Transfer Laboratory: 1956 to 1992

Wilkes retired in 1954, and Professor Warren M. Rohsenow became lab director in 1956. The lab's name was changed to the Heat Transfer Laboratory at that time, in reflection of a substantial change in the philosophy of the work. Within three years of Wilkes' retirement, most of the former heat measurement stations were gone. Experimental apparatus was now built in response to the needs of specific research projects. The technologies of the various heat measurement systems were taken up by companies run by MIT faculty and alumni.

Wilkes had been working essentially alone in the Heat Measurements Laboratory, but the Heat Transfer Laboratory operated as a multi-investigator facility. Professor Peter Griffith (ScD '56) joined the faculty the in 1956, having worked in the lab during the early 1950's. Rohsenow and Griffith, and their collaborators, conducted substantial and groundbreaking research in boiling and two-phase flow. Other faculty who started working in the lab at that time included Professors Nickerson and Clark (Clark later joined the faculty of the University of Michigan). The lab was to see many other young faculty join and leave during subsequent years.

Of the faculty who remain in the ME Department, Professor Borivoje B. Mikic (ScD '66) and Professor Leon R. Glicksman (PhD '64) joined the lab during the 1960's. Mikic was to become very well known for the work he did on contact resistance and bubble growth during this period. Glicksman became an authority on glass fiber formation and continues to consult for glass companies to this day.

Much research in the lab during the 1960's and 1970's concerned the heat transfer aspects of nuclear reactors. This work was supported by the Atomic Energy Commission and reactor vendors. Contact heat transfer between the ceramic fuel and its metallic cladding was investigated. Boiling heat transfer to flowing water under high pressure conditions was the subject of many theses. Various safety issues were also investigated, including water hammer, critical heat flux phenomena, and the thermal behavior of molten materials in water. Much of that experience found its way into the classroom when the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Departments jointly offered a course on two-phase flow and heat transfer during the 1970's and 1980's. Two graduates of Heat Transfer Laboratory went on to join the faculty of the Nuclear Engineering Department: Professor Neil E. Todreas (ScD '66) and Professor Mujid S. Kazimi (ScD '73).

Two-phase flow research in the laboratory grew to include included gas-solid flows in fluidized beds. Professor Glicksman and co-workers have conducted extensive research on fluidized beds for fossil fuel power generation, a technology that offers substantially reduced pollutant emissions. Their work has established proper scaling laws for laboratory simulation of large-scale combustors and identified fundamental mechanisms of bed-to-wall heat transfer.

Although the heat transfer laboratory has remained in the same location over the last 70 years, its neighbors have changed. Originally, Building 7, and the end of the heat transfer lab, was bordered by Massachusetts Avenue on one side and the main MIT parking lot on two sides. Gradually, the space around the heat transfer lab filled in. To the north, Building 9 was added onto the end of Building 7, and in 1990, the new architecture library was attached to the side of Building 7. In the near future, a new ground floor entrance to the Institute from Massachusetts Avenue will be added adjacent to the lab.

The Rohsenow Heat and Mass Transfer Laboratory: 1992 to present

In 1992, the Heat Transfer Laboratory was renamed in honor of Professor Rohsenow to recognize his many accomplishments and his leadership of the lab for 30 years. The present work of the lab is described in the links on the Rohsenow Lab hompage.


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Author: J.H. Lienhard V
Sources: MIT President's Reports, MIT Bulletins, MIT Museum records
Photographs: Courtesy of the MIT Museum

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