Meeting the Entropy Challenge: An International Thermodynamics Symposium in Honor and Memory of Professor Joseph Henry Keenan

An International Thermodynamics Symposium
In Honor and Memory of Professor Joseph Henry Keenan


Joseph Henry Keenan (1900–1977)

Joseph Henry Keenan has been a noted authority in thermodynamics, whose interests have extended from jet and rocket propulsion, to the properties of steam, to gas turbines, to the development of the conceptual foundations of thermodynamics.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, PA on August 24, 1900, Professor Keenan graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1922 with the degree of Bachelor of Science in naval architecture and marine engineering. In 1928, after six years as a steam-turbine design engineer for General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY, he became assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. At the invitation of Karl Taylor Compton he joined the MIT staff in 1934 as associate professor of mechanical engineering. In 1939, he became a full professor. Professor Keenan headed the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT from 1958 to 1961, leading the Department through the post-Sputnik years, one of the most difficult periods of its recent history. The introspective studies under his leadership were important factors in the changes that kept the Department in a preeminent position. Professor Emeritus Joseph Henry Keenan of Mechanical Engineering at MIT died on July 17, 1977.

The course of his future professional career—centered on the deep structure of thermodynamics—was in a sense set by his first job, when, in 1922, he became a turbine design engineer with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. There, he first became interested in the properties of steam, which necessitated thorough grounding in the fundamentals of thermodynamics.

The development of accurate tables of the properties of steam, so vital to the electric power industry, was a continuing preoccupation during Professor Keenan’s career, the initial milestone being his appointment in 1929 as the U.S. delegate to the First International Conference on the Properties of Steam; he served as delegate in all successive conferences on this subject until the eighth in 1974. His name is synonymous with the Steam Tables, familiar to generations of students and practicing engineers; he was author or coauthor of successively improved tables of steam properties published in 1930, 1936, 1939, and 1969, all of them authoritative. The Air Tables, and then the Gas Tables, which he also coauthored, provided for the emerging gas-turbine industry what the Steam Tables had done for the steam-power industry. His books still occupy prominent places on the bookshelves of engineers in the power-plant and chemical process industries.

During his professional career, Professor Keenan conducted significant experimental research, most of which represented pioneering efforts. Among his works were the determination of steam-turbine nozzle performance, experiments on friction coefficients of air at supersonic speeds, experiments on injectors and on heat transfer at high speeds, the development of the free-piston compressor for gas-turbine applications, the development of equipment for processing coffee and cocoa, and the development of dust-separation equipment.

Professor Keenan’s works on thermodynamics are world-renowned and have directly and indirectly changed the face of thermodynamics teaching in engineering. His contributions to thermodynamics derived from an uncompromising search for understanding and elimination of ambiguities overlooked or accepted by others. He developed a coherent and logical exposition of the fundamentals of thermodynamics so that the widest possible range of problems could be considered in a uniform and consistent manner. To the very end he strove to improve the exposition and to make it more useful for practicing engineers. His famous textbook, Thermodynamics, published in 1941, which was adopted by most prominent engineering schools in both the United States and abroad, remains a classic. It represents the distilled essence of thinking up to that time, and it is characterized by simplicity of approach, rigor in logical development, and economy of effort. This book has had an authoritative and continuous influence on teachers of thermodynamics, in all branches of engineering, and throughout the world.

James B. Killian, Jr., then Chairman of the MIT Corporation, said of Professor Keenan in 1966: “To my mind he is one of the finest examples I know of a scholar of the first order who is also unremittingly interested in and concerned with the art of teaching. Not only has he made important contributions to the body of knowledge and understanding in the field of thermodynamics, but he has been able with great success to transmit his understanding to his students and associates. Through his writing and teaching, Professor Keenan brought to the engineering profession the fundamental work of J. Willard Gibbs in thermodynamics, which, for the most part, had been overlooked by engineers and scientists for five decades. In the 1930’s he adapted Gibbs’ concept of thermodynamic availability to the steady-flow processes of engineering. The initial motivation for this development was the allocation of fuel costs in a process with many outputs. The concepts of availability soon became widely used in chemical engineering and power-plant engineering, particularly abroad. In the United States, it has in a sense been tardily rediscovered and has recently become an important tool in the shaping of a national energy policy.”

In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, Professor Keenan contributed to a fundamental reinterpretation of thermodynamics that is applicable to a much wider range of systems, states, and physical phenomena than any other interpretation presented in the past. The book “Principles of General Thermodynamics” published in 1965 is not only a milestone in the history of thermodynamics, which has had a great influence on all subsequent books on thermodynamics because of the depth and generality of the conceptual development, and the novel general formulation of the second law in terms of stable equilibrium. It has been also a source of seeding questions and ideas that stimulated for example the development by MIT researchers of a unified quantum theory of mechanics and thermodynamics which provides a resolution of the long standing conflict between the postulates of thermodynamics, including irreversibility, and those of quantum mechanics.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, of which Professor Keenan was a Fellow and became Honorary Member in 1966, awarded him the Worcester Reed Warner Medal in 1955 for his “outstanding contribution to the permanent engineering literature in his writings on thermodynamics and tables of thermodynamic properties of steam, air and gases.” He served as secretary and as chairman of the Applied Mechanics Division of the ASME. In 1951 he received a Fulbright Lectureship at Cambridge University and at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, and in 1966 an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Glasgow.

In 1951 he received an award “for outstanding achievement in bringing about a better understanding of the American way of life” from Freedom’s Foundation of Valley Forge, PA. Professor Keenan has been an honorary member of the American Association of Physics Teachers and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Society for Engineering Education, American Association of University Professors, Tau Bet Pi, and Sigma Xi; also the Harvard Musical Association and the Badminton and Tennis Club, both of Boston.