Revisiting the engineering elite

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The Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, the President's National Medal of Science. For most Americans, these prestigious awards do not require explanation. But there is one award most people are unaware of, and it's an honor engineers throughout the country often dream of winning: The John Fritz Medal.

Some describe it as the Nobel Prize for engineering. The names of its many winners are permanently inscribed in college textbooks and records: Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, Orville Wright, and Charles F. "Boss" Kettering to name just a few.

For most of us, recognition of their professional impact is made clearer by the daily use of their inventions. If you use a phone, thank Mr. Bell. If you cook on an electric range, tip your hat to Mr. Westinghouse. When you take a trip on a jetliner to Hawaii following an arduously stressful period at work, raise a glass in appreciation of Mr. Wright. And on a snowy winter morning as you plead with your car to start quickly, thank Mr. Kettering for not having to stand outside in the cold and hand crank your vehicle until it shudders, coughs and finally comes to life, the dermis of your hand peeling away as you quickly shove it into a coat pocket for warmth.

Perhaps these engineers expected no financial windfall for their engineering inventions. In fact, the idea of admiration or professional acclaim may never have entered their thought process as they labored quietly in dusty research labs and dimly lit workshops, perfecting their inventions. Perhaps all they expected was to make their existence, and that of their family and friends, a little easier and less cumbersome. For some, they were simply curious about how mechanical devices worked and wondered if improvements might be possible to the current design.

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But recognizing these individuals before 1900 was not an easy thing. And so in 1902, in response to this lack of awareness in the general public regarding the work of the nation's top engineering professionals, representatives of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Chemical Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical Engineers came together to establish the John Fritz Medal. This award serves as a memorial to Fritz, long considered a legend in the iron and steel industry. Today, the American Association of Engineering Societies presents the medal to one worthy engineering professional each year.

In 1992, when Kettering Professor Serge Gratch won the award as a faculty member in the Mechanical Engineering Dept., the honor was not widely noted. Recently, Dr. Charles White, a 1968 mechanical engineering graduate of Kettering/GMI, associate professor of Information Systems and director of Kettering's Business Programs, noted that a look back on the stature of Kettering faculty is important as the University builds programs for the future.

"When I heard that Serge received the John Fritz Medal and later when I spoke with him about the honor and the experiences that qualified him for the award, I felt fortunate to be in the company of people like him," White explained. "I have had a few opportunities to work with such nationally recognized scholars and it always makes me strive to improve. Kettering and our alumni should feel proud to have and have had such honored individuals such as Serge on the faculty. In the future I expect that our faculty will continue to attract nationally and internationally recognized experts in the disciplines present in our curriculum."

Gratch, a tall, spry and modest man now in his early 80s who smiles often, still expresses his amazement that he was chosen to win this honor. "I don't believe any of my accomplishments fall into the same category of the people who won the medal before me," he explained. "I view myself as a jack of all trades and master of none. I suppose the small accomplishments that I achieved with the help of others are what led to the Fritz Medal. I think all of my friends got together and put together the file without my knowledge. Much of what I helped achieve would have taken place eventually," he added.

This from a man who originally studied premed in his home village of Monte San Pietro, which is less than 10 miles from Bologna, Italy. Born in 1921, his father was a country doctor and his mother a homemaker, although she did earn a degree in Chemistry from the University of Bologna. In 1939 and with the emergence of the powerful fascist party, his family moved to the U.S., and eventually Gratch enrolled in the undergraduate degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. After earning his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, he served as a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the school, as well as the group leader in the department's Thermodynamics Research Laboratory.

Although instinctively modest regarding his professional career and achievements, Gratch has played a significant role in many engineering and scientific innovations throughout the years. For example, in the early 1940s, he and fellow engineering colleague John A. Goff developed a formulation of the thermodynamic properties of moist air, which was adopted in 1947 as the international standard and remained as such for more than 30 years. Additionally, in the 1950s, Gratch and colleague T.G. Fox discovered crystallizable polymethyl-methacrylate, which was (and is) used in the automotive materials industry for a variety of useful purposes.

While at Ford Motor Co. from 1961-1986, he made major contributions in the field of exhaust catalysts for internal combustion engines, and led the establishment of the company's alternative fuels program. Gratch was also one of the key architects of a major reorganization of the American Society of Automotive Engineers and contributed to the implementation of this reorganization during his presidency and membership of the society and its board.

These are just a few shining examples of his many successes that eventually led to his winning of the John Fritz Medal.

Following his retirement from Ford as director of Vehicle, Powertrain and Component Research, he came to Kettering and taught Mechanical Engineering courses until his retirement in the mid 1990s, thus marking a return to a career he enjoyed early on. This move back into academia was not simply for the pleasure of pursuing a hobby. Upon his first guest lecture at Kettering in 1986, Gratch was struck by the intelligence of student questions and how hungry they were for knowledge, which made his decision to join the faculty an easy one. "Students at other schools where I interviewed and guest lectured were not as motivated," he explained. "But after my first lecture at Kettering, I was pleasantly drowned by the vast amount and perceptive questions from Kettering/GMI students. The room was packed and for more than 20 minutes afterward I happily answered all of their questions. I was very impressed from the start."

The John Fritz Medal is just one of many honors and awards Gratch has collected during his career, which spanned more than 50 years. Other accomplishments include the 1984 and 1985 Outstanding Leadership Award from the Engineering Society of Detroit, and the 1989 Outstanding Teaching Award from Kettering University/GMI.

Today, Gratch and his wife Rosemary enjoy retirement on their three acres of lush land in Bingham Farms, Mich., where they occasionally play host to their 10 children and eight grandkids when they come for visits. When asked if he still engages in research, Gratch offered a friendly smile and said without hesitation, "No, I am fully retired." But he was quick to note that he does occasionally pen a poem or two when the inspiration strikes him.

Written by Gary J. Erwin,