Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 20
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  • FREDERICK F. LING 1927–2014


    FREDERICK FONGSUN LING, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and one of the most influential ­tribologists of the twentieth century, died on November 8, 2014, in New York City at the age of 87. He dedicated his professional life to the study of friction, lubrication, and wear of materials, bringing an interdisciplinary approach to improving manufacturing productivity.

    Dr. Ling was born in Qingdao, China, on January 2, 1927. He received a BS degree in civil engineering from St. John’s University, Shanghai, in 1947.Soon thereafter, he left for the US on a Ford International Scholarship to Bucknell University, where he earned a BS in mechanical engineering in 1949. Because of the ongoing civil unrest in China at the time, Dr. Ling did not return to his home country but continued his studies at the then Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) for an MS in mechanical engineering (1951), followed by a DSc in mechanical engineering.

    His doctoral dissertation, entitled “An Investigation of Sliding Friction and Interface Temperature between Two Dry Metallic Surfaces,” was completed in 1954. He began his deep involvement in research on surface mechanics and tribology during his graduate studies. Following his DSc, he was appointed assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Institute of Technology.

    Two years later, he joined the Department of Mechanics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he served as chair from 1967 to 1974. In 1974, he was appointed chair of the newly established Department of Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering & Mechanics, serving as chair until 1986. He held the title of William Howard Hart Professor of Rational and Technical Mechanics from 1973 to 1988. During his time at Rensselaer, Dr. Ling introduced many graduate students to the field of tribology, and in 1990 was named Distinguished William Howard Hart Professor Emeritus.

    After retiring from Rensselaer, he became a visiting professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University for four years and also served as director of the Columbia Engineering Productivity Center. From 1990 to 1992, he was president of the Institute of Productivity Research in New York.

    In 1992, Dr. Ling began a 10-year tenure at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Earnest F. Gloyna Regents Chair in Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the position of associate director for engineering, Center of Manufacturing Systems. In 2002, he became the Earnest F. Gloyna Regents Chair Emeritus in Engineering. He retired to New York City where he continued to serve as editor in chief of Springer-Verlag’s Mechanical Engineering Series until 2011.

    Professor Ling authored the seminal texts Surface Mechanics (Wiley Interscience, 1973) and, with W.M. Lai and D.A. Lucca, Fundamentals of Surface Mechanics with Applications (Springer-Verlag, 2002). He wrote or coauthored more than 100 scientific publications and numerous other books. In the preface to Springer’s Mechanical Engineering Series, he stated, “Mechanical engineering, an engineering discipline borne of the needs of the industrial revolution, is once again asked to do its substantial share in the call for industrial renewal.

    The general call is urgent as we face profound issues of productivity and competitiveness that require engineering solutions, among others….” In his life’s work, Dr. Ling strived to meet that challenge, lecturing widely on friction, lubrication, and wear in manufacturing and material systems and leading research teams on projects for government agencies such as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

    He established research with companies such as the Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and IBM, and initiated research collaborations with tribologists in government and university laboratories, both domestic and foreign. Among his numerous honors and awards, Dr. Ling received the coveted Senior Postdoctoral Fellow Award from the National Science Foundation in 1970 and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Mayo D. Hersey Award in 1984.

    He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering at the age of 50. In 1998, ASME recognized his lifetime service to engineering with its honorary membership for “advancing the field of tribology through engineering research and applications in machine systems.” A modest, patient, and optimistic man, nothing delighted Dr. Ling more than helping his students and colleagues advance their careers.

    He instilled a strong tradition of leader­ ship in ­tribology and mechanical engineering communities; that tradition is being carried on by a large number of former students and colleagues whose careers were influenced greatly by Professor Frederick F. Ling. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, the former Linda Kwok, three children, and four grandchildren. His daughter Erica shared the following observations.

    Song of the Tiger
    My father was a reserved, modest man who led by example and did not like to stand on ceremony. He introduced himself simply as Fred Ling. My brothers and I were known as The Kids. But we were just the nucleus of his family. He embraced and took great pride in the achievements of his engineering students and colleagues, and the honor of which our father was most proud was election to the National Academy of Engineering, at the age of 50.

    Dad was born in the Year of the Tiger, the third of five sons and one daughter of Helen C.Y. Wong, an educator and a doctor, and Frank F.C. Ling, an engineer, who met while pursuing degrees at the University of Michigan in the early 1920s.

    When Dad left Shanghai to study at Bucknell University, he was only 20 and had always intended to return to China. Because of historical events in China, he never saw his mother and father again—but their example clearly inspired Dad’s notable career and commitment to education, research, and service in engineering. Those born in the Year of the Tiger are said to be born leaders—courageous and energetic, competitive yet capable of great generosity.

    Dad was all of those things, yet he was also gentle, whimsical, and artistic. Throughout his life, Dad took delight in solving problems and fixing, designing, and building things. Dad’s only surviving brother, Wilfred C. Ling, tells a story about Dad at the end of World War II, when he and a friend dismantled a US Army jeep, rebuilt the engine and body, and resold it to the associate headmaster of St. John’s Middle School.

    Dad made me my very first dress, a red jumper from one of his shirts. He designed and built pieces of furniture shortly after my parents were married. Linda Kwok and Fred Ling, both born in China, formed an unlikely pairing—she, mercurial and impulsive, and he, tenacious and deliberate—yet they complemented each other for more than six decades, and raised their three children in Troy, New York.

    Dad became a naturalized citizen in 1962, Mom in 1966. Dad taught my brother Alfred, who inherited his ability to fix anything, how to use hand and power tools, and his use of Dad’s drafting tools no doubt led him to a career in architecture. While that mechanical facility eluded me, I too became an architect. It is interesting Dad should beget two architects, as he was in some ways himself a frustrated architect.

    He designed the house we lived in at 30 Mellon Avenue in Troy, which featured a courtyard plan characteristic of traditional Chinese houses, an atrium, minimalist landscaping, and solar panels way back in the 1970s. When he wasn’t building things, Dad loved to read, mostly biographies and history, and passed on an appreciation of history, especially about the Second World War, to my brother Arthur. Arthur remembers fondly the times Dad and he talked about famous historical figures and events and spent many a night watching old World War II movies together.

    Yet of even more interest to Dad was our family history, which Arthur recalls Dad telling, for example, at the kitchen table while drawing pictures of the old family home in Qingdao. Dad also was captivated by music, especially opera, and loved to sing. His former colleagues at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute remarked that Dad would look for any excuse to have a singalong.

    Occasionally he would pull out his harmonica, and once he even stepped up to play with a jug band at a pumpkin farm. I am very much like my father, in appearance and in temperament. He used to call me perpetual motion, but that’s how I remember him. Industrious and energetic, he was always busy thinking, doing, or traveling. Dad relished travel, especially in Eastern Europe during the era of détente, and took full advantage of the chance to experience different cultures and languages.

    Lucky was the child who sat next to him on an airplane during his frequent flights, for Dad invariably would fold and present the gift of an ­origami bird or frog. One of Dad’s greatest pleasures later in his life was being a grandfather to Alfred and Molly’s sons and to Stephen’s and my daughter. Following Chinese tradition, he was known as Yeh-yeh to Frank, Timothy, and Edward and as Gong-gong to Thea.

    Grandson Frank carries on the origami tradition, far surpassing Yeh-yeh in the complexity of the designs he creates. Thea, who inherited his peripatetic gene, remembers Gong-gong­ singing her lullabies and how very generous he was. Tim embodies Dad’s whimsical, fun-loving side, a dimension not seen by too many others. Eddie is studying mechanical engineering, which would have pleased his Yeh-yeh greatly.

    He and Frank love cars, just like their father and grandfather, and share that enviable gift of being able to fix anything. Late in life, Dad’s mental gifts began to fail him, yet he remained courteous and generous, and to the end, he seemed comforted by music and would hum to let us know things were okay. Dad often noted the role of serendipity in his life.

    He made the most of those opportunities during a long and rewarding life, far from his beginnings in Qingdao but ever true to the principles by which his parents lived. Elizabeth Doocey, Dad’s longtime executive assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, described Fred Ling well: he was a gentle man and a gentleman.

    Erica H. Ling, for The Kids
    October 19, 2015

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