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This is the third volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.
BY CHALMER KIRKBRIDE
Olaf Andreas Hougen, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, died January 7, 1986, at the age of ninety-two. He had been associated almost continuously with the Chemical Engineering Department at that school from 1916 until his retirement in 1963 and indirectly thereafter for twenty years. He made major contributions to the development and growth of the "modern" (1925–1945) concept of chemical engineering. P
rofessor Hougen's ancestry is traceable to fifteenth-century Norway. All four of his grandparents emigrated from Norway in the 1800s and homesteaded in Iowa and Dakota.
Olaf Hougen was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on October 4, 1893, the eldest of six children. His family lived in Decorah, Iowa, from 1897 to 1907 and then moved to Tacoma, Washington. He entered the University of Washington in Seattle in 1911, at the age of eighteen. In those days, there were no courses in unit operations, material and energy balances, heat and mass transfer, engineering thermodynamics, or process design. Studying mathematics beyond calculus was discouraged. There were no textbooks in chemical engineering except those of a descriptive nature dealing with industrially applied chemistry. In addition, throughout his college years, Olaf—and most other students—were required to find employment to finance their education. Hougen recorded that the entire cost of his college education was $1,689.92, of which he earned $1,044.80, or about sixty percent.
Upon graduation in 1915, there was no professional employment available to him. In the fall of 1916, however, he began his long association with the University of Wisconsin. Later, during his first year of graduate studies, on April 6, 1917, war was declared on Germany. In May 1918 Hougen was drafted, inducted at Camp Grant, and left for military training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, he was singled out for chemical warfare service and assigned to Saltville, Virginia, in June 1918.
There, in the "salt capital" of the Confederacy, his assignment was to prepare sodium cyanide through the newly invented Bucher process, which involved the interaction of nitrogen with a pelletized mixture of sodium carbonate, coke, and iron oxide at high temperatures. The desired product was recovered by extraction with liquid ammonia. Hougen nearly lost his life during this assignment by accidentally inhaling the cyanide when removing accumulations of solids from an evaporator.
Following an honorable discharge from the army, he returned to Madison, Wisconsin, married Olga Berg, and moved to Niagara Falls for employment with Carborundum Company. Here his duties included studying the properties of refractories for use in high-temperature environments.
In September 1920 he became an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at the modest salary of $150 a month. Despite the fact that advanced degrees in fields such as chemical engineering were considered unnecessary at Wisconsin, Hougen worked during the summer months on his doctoral thesis. The project that constituted his thesis work had been initiated at the request of the American Gas Association; its objective was the development of the theory of gas absorption in spray and packed towers. The work was conducted by Hougen and a graduate student named Kenneth M. Watson.
With the exception of two summers devoted to his thesis work, when Hougen was not in classes he spent most of his time working in industry. He found such employment to be necessary for financial reasons. In retrospect, he seems to have been fortunate in this experience in that it led him to emphasize industrial applications in his subsequent work.
The decade from 1925 to 1935 was the era in which the greatest advances were made in the field of chemical engineering. These advances occurred most particularly in the development of the principles of material and energy balances. During this period, Kenneth Watson suggested to Hougen that the two of them collaborate to develop a text on the subject. Their product, Industrial Chemical Calculations, was published by John Wiley in 1936.
In 1938 Hougen advanced to the rank of full professor at Wisconsin, a step that marked the turning point in his career. Thus, twelve years after receiving his doctorate, years that had been full of frustration and lack of support, his talent and energies were finally released. With tenure established and the prospect of talented graduate students with whom he could work, he was finally able to devote time to experimental and theoretical studies. The focal point of his research became the extension of studies that he had begun in 1925 and to which Alan Colburn had contributed most significantly in 1929.
World War II also had a profound effect on Hougen's career in that it postponed research activities everywhere. Luckily, Kenneth Watson returned to Wisconsin in 1942 and worked with Hougen on a number of endeavors, including advances in chemical engineering theory and practice, teaching, and research, as well as plant design, construction, and operations. They also initiated an ambitious program on applied kinetics and industrial reaction rates. In 1942 the American Chemical Society, under Hougen's chairmanship, sponsored a symposium on the subject.
It was during this time that the text Industrial Chemical Calculations was revised and extended, giving place to Material and Energy Balances as the first part of another work, Chemical Process Principles. In addition, Hougen devoted a great deal of time to the National Defense Research Committee and the War Production Board on matters related to the war effort. He also responded to a request from the Advisory Committee on Industry of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Supply that he prepare reports on progress in the world silicate industries.
Following the Chicago kinetics symposium, the University of Wisconsin Research Committee allotted an annual sum of ten thousand dollars for a ten-year period to conduct research on the principles of industrial reaction rates, kinetics, and catalysis. The research sponsored by this support paved the way for further research on thermodynamics and applied kinetics and ultimately led to the books Thermodynamics and Kinetics, which were coauthored by Hougen and Kenneth Watson. The former was later revised in collaboration with Roland Ragatz.
Especially satisfying and enjoyable to Hougen were his two Fulbright professorships, one in 1951 to Norges Tekniske Hogskole in Trondheim, Norway, and the other to Japan in 1957. His influence in the two countries resulted in significant changes in teaching methodology, as attested to by teachers and practitioners, alike. Returning from Japan by way of Taiwan, India, and Thailand afforded Hougen the opportunity to provide public lectures, to visit those countries' universities, and to meet faculty and students. As he had hoped, such exposure served to encourage many students from these countries to pursue chemical engineering studies at Wisconsin. From 1961 to 1963, he was science attaché to the Scandinavian countries and lived in Stockholm, Sweden.
Olaf Hougen retired in 1963 but continued to be actively involved in numerous public service and literary projects. One project from which he derived much satisfaction was the preparation of an historical account of the University of Wisconsin's Department of Chemical Engineering. Also highly prized by Hougen was his receipt of the Royal Order of St. Olav, First Class, which was conferred by King Haakon in 1969 in appreciation for his service to Norway. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1974.
Olaf was a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church and contributed both substance and time to its activities. His wife Olga died in 1976. His remaining years were spent in a retirement home in Madison, Wisconsin.
Olaf Hougen's life was one of selfless dedication to his family, his profession, his students and associates, and the many and varied social and professional groups with which he was affiliated. His was a life showing great self-restraint and a vitality that found expression in his professional work, in his public service, and in love for his fellow man. Much of his genius lay in his ability and desire to identify talent in others and to create an environment in which that talent could flourish and bear fruit.
Although it may, indeed, be said that he contributed to major changes in the practice and teaching of chemical engineering during a period of forty years, it is the magnificent inventory of goodness that has accumulated in the lives of those with whom he lived and worked that is Olaf Hougen's chief contribution.