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JOHN D.CAPLAN 41
JOHN D.CAPLAN 41
WRITTEN BY JOHN BRUS SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME
JOHN D.CAPLAN, the man who spearheaded the automotive industry’s
efforts that led to a drastic reduction of automotive hydrocarbon and carbon
monoxide emissions during the 1960s and 1970s, died on April 27, 1998, in
Royal Oak, Michigan. He was seventy-two.
Caplan was born on March 5, 1926, in Wieser, Idaho. During World War II
he was involved in operations in the Pacific. He had just received his B.S. degree
in chemical engineering from Oregon State University when he joined General
Motors Research Laboratories on July 1, 1949, as a member of the college-
graduate-in-training program. In September 1949 he was permanently assigned to
the Fuels and Lubricants Department.
When the automobile’s contribution to air pollution was recognized in the
early 1950s, Caplan became involved in, and then directed, the technical
programs that would define the problem and solve it. In just a few years, he
became the leading expert in General Motors and the automotive industry on air
pollution, and the principal influence in the formation of General Motors’ policy
with regard to the problem.
In addition to his technical capability and judgment, Caplan’s leadership
potential was recognized early, and he progressed rapidly through several
promotions to become assistant department head in 1955. He completed
requirements toward the M.S. de
JOHN D.CAPLAN 42
gree in mechanical engineering, which Wayne State University awarded him in
1955. Later he attended the advanced management program in the Graduate
School of Business Administration at Harvard University.
During the mid-to-late 1950s, Caplan directed GM’s program that developed
control systems for crankcase blowby gases and evaporative emissions. The
General Motors Research Laboratories program discovered that a significant
portion of the hydrocarbon emissions from a vehicle came from the crankcase
breather, prompting internal venting to eliminate this source of emissions.
Positive crankcase ventilation became standard equipment nationwide in 1962
and provided the first major reduction in automotive emissions.
By 1963 Caplan was viewed as an international authority on problems of air
pollution from automotive engines and, in addition, General Motors named him to
head the research laboratories’ Fuels and Lubricants Department. In this position
he guided research programs covering engine combustion, exhaust gas after-
treatment and air pollution studies, and fuel studies. Related programs included
the evaluation of engine oils, rear axle lubricants, refrigerator compressor oils,
synthetic lubricants, transmission fluids, and chassis greases. The work involved
research of a fundamental nature, as well as a program of product evaluation.
In this role, he directed the research program that elucidated the mechanism
of photochemical smog, established the relationship of urban carbon monoxide
concentrations to traffic density, and explained the sources of the various
automotive pollutants. As part of this work, he supervised the design and
installation of the automotive industry’s first smog chamber, which could
duplicate atmospheric photochemical reactions such as those typical of Los
Angeles. He guided the development of gas chromatographic techniques and
equipment for detecting, separating, and measuring minute concentrations of
hydrocarbons in automotive exhaust gases, evaporative emissions, and smog
chamber samples. These developments made it possible to conduct parts-per-
million and parts-per-billion exhaust gas analysis for the first time.
JOHN D.CAPLAN 43
Caplan had a great influence on the progress of both the automotive and
petroleum industries in their joint efforts to optimize engine-fuel and engine-
lubricant relationships. Operating in a key liaison position between these two
huge industries, he directed an aggressive program to compel improvements in
petroleum products used in automotive applications and to find ways to better use
those products by hardware design changes. A considerable portion of the
progress made in the performance and durability of automotive fuel and lubricant
systems during those years must be attributed to Caplan’s outstanding leadership.
His direction helped ensure significant reductions in fuel system vapor lock,
knock, and bearing and valve train wear problems.
In addition, Caplan negotiated with regulatory agencies of California and the
federal government over emission standards and emission measuring procedures
All these activities advanced General Motors’ and the auto industry’s
cooperative work to progressively control automotive emissions. The
collaborative effort began with 1961 model cars and resulted in an 80 percent
reduction in hydrocarbons and 65 percent reduction in carbon monoxide by the
time 1971 model cars rolled out. Caplan served as the automobile industry’s
spokesman on air pollution problems in the United States, Canada, and Great
Much of his outstanding contribution in the field of automotive emissions
was summarized in his 1963 paper “Causes and Control of Automotive
Emissions.” For this, he received Britain’s premier automobile engineering award
in 1964, the Crompton-Lanchester Medal from the British Institution of
Mechanical Engineers. Caplan also authored many other technical articles for
engineering journals, including “Vapor-Locking Tendencies of Fuels—A
Practical Approach” and “Smog Chemistry Points the Way to Rational Vehicle
In 1967, Caplan was appointed technical director, basic and applied
sciences, for General Motors Research Laboratories. Just two years later, he was
named executive director. He was interested and knowledgeable in a broad range
of fields, which gave him the background necessary to direct a dozen research de
JOHN D.CAPLAN 44
partments ranging from theoretical physics and transportation research to
polymers and mechanical engineering. He demonstrated an ability to work well
with technical and governmental leaders, a skill that served him well as chairman
of the industry’s key emission group, the Vehicle Combustion Products
Committee of the Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Caplan was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1973, being
cited for “Achievements in the definition, measurement, and control of motor
vehicle pollutants.” He was also a fellow of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and the
Society of Automotive Engineers. He was a member of the American Chemical
Society, the American Defense Preparedness Association, the American
Management Association, the American Society for Testing and Materials, the
Combustion Institute, and the Engineering Society of Detroit. He served as
president of the Coordinating Research Council, as chairman of the Section on
Industrial Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
as chairman of the Directors of Industrial Research, and as a member of the
Advisory Council, Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied
Caplan served on two advisory committees for the State of California
Department of Health: the Automobile Emission Stan-dards Advisory Committee
and the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board Advisory Committee on Criteria
and Testing. He worked with the U.S. Public Health Service Exhaust Gas
Research Task Group and National Conference on Air Pollution Steering
Committee, and served on the city of Detroit advisory committee on motor fuels
He was elected to the honor societies Tau Beta Pi (engineering), Sigma Tau
(engineering), Phi Lambda Upsilon (chemistry), and Phi Kappa Phi (general).
Caplan was also listed in American Men and Women of Science, Who’s Who in
America, and Engineers of Distinction—A Who’s Who in Engineering.
Bill Agnew, a research executive who worked with him for many years,
remembers him this way: “John had high respect for excellence and competence.
On the other hand, he was a willful man who was intolerant of mediocre
performance and aggres
JOHN D.CAPLAN 45
sively attacked incompetence. As such, he was a leader who got things done, but
was not universally appreciated. Both at work and in his personal life he wanted
things right, and his ability to be right in his own decisions was almost uncanny.
He was highly productive and had a stream of accomplishments, many of them
carried forward through others, for which he often did not get credit. His editing
of reports was sometimes cryptic with margin notes (e.g., ‘nonsense’) that left the
author with no clue as to what was wrong or how to fix it; questioning him would
usually get only a smile.
“Away from work John was a true gentleman, a fascinating
conversationalist, and a man of many interests. He played an electric organ at
home, as an amateur and only for his own pleasure. He liked to socialize, and his
sense of humor was subtle, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible. He
often left his sentences incomplete on the incorrect assumption that his audience
knew where he was headed.
“John was a family man with great pride and love for his wife and children,
and they had great love for him. They took many family vacations around the
country, even when his children were grown. He appeared to be a dominant
figure in the family, and that seemed to create great strength in the family ties. He
was a big man in many respects.”
Charles Amann, who joined the GM Research Laboratories the same year as
Caplan and worked alongside him throughout his career, said, “John took on the
field of automotive emissions when it was in its infancy. He had the inquisitive
mind that marks a good researcher. Recognizing that there was more to that field
than the chemistry in which he had been formally educated, he studied
mechanical engineering nights at Wayne State University, earning an M.S.
degree. He took a course on internal combustion engines from me, and when the
topic of fuels came up, I was uneasy, feeling that he should be up front doing the
lecture. Needless to say, he was a top student. John moved into management
fairly early in his career, but he never lost his feel for research and was a
champion of those he judged to be competent in their fields.”
Ernie Mazzatenta recalls: “For more than two decades, John
JOHN D.CAPLAN 46
unfailingly accepted my invitations to guest lecture before the research engineers
and scientists enrolled in my technical writing classes. Because of his insistence
upon quality reporting of research projects, he always came in with useful
information and advice aimed at helping them achieve this quality.
“He would devote about half of his visit to explaining precisely what he and
other GM executives needed and expected to see in their technical reports. John
was most emphatic about the need for an informative, rather than a descriptive,
abstract. He also stressed the need to separate the details of experimental or test
results from the conclusions that flowed from those results.
“John would devote the second half of his visit to answering questions.
What impressed me most was his willingness—indeed, his eagerness—to remain
in the classroom just as long as questions were being posed—never appearing
rushed despite his demanding schedule. His great interest in nurturing quality
reporting was not lost on anyone in that classroom.”
After his retirement in 1987, Caplan continued to evaluate research
proposals for the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of
Commerce. He was a member of the Senior Men’s Club of Birmingham,
Michigan, and his condominium association. He enjoyed travel, golf, and
working on his computer. His wife, Loris; daughters Barbara Russell, Carole
Dolohanty, and Nancy Howell; five grandchildren; and his sister, Christine
Medinger, survive him.
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