National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
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Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

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             JOHN D.CAPLAN                                             41
                              JOHN D.CAPLAN
                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
            and techniques.
                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
            Emission Control.”
                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
            and lubricants.
                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.
             JOHN D.CAPLAN                                                     47
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