Author
National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Copyright2002
ISBN978-0-309-08457-4
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

Search this Publication

  • Previous
  •    Table of Contents
  • Next
  • FRANKLIN F.OFFNER
    
                               188
    
    
                  
    
    
             FRANKLIN F.OFFNER                                        189
    
                           FRANKLIN F.OFFNER
    
    
                                      1911–1999
    
                      BY ALVIN M.WEINBERG AND PETER J.DALLOS
    
                FRANK OFFNER was our colleague, collaborator, and friend. He was also a
            bona fide genius. It is usually straightforward to give a eulogy. One addresses
            scientific achievements, honors, and accomplishments and then says what a nice
            person the departed was. Our task is not so simple—which Frank Offner shall we
            talk about? Frank the scientist, the inventor, the industrialist, the teacher, or the
            artist?
                Frank was fond of telling stories about his childhood, which according to all
            accounts, was a happy one. Frank was born in 1911. As a youngster, he was
            mostly interested in things mechanical, and he guarded the carpenter tools he
            received at age seven until his sons appropriated them much later. He turned to
            electronics at age eleven, when he received his first crystal radio. The early
            infatuation with radios lasted through his teen years, but it was interspersed with a
            developing fondness for chemistry and near misses of blowing up his home
            chemistry laboratory. He had excellent science teachers at Milwaukee University
            School, and they encouraged his obvious talent and native curiosity.
                He studied chemistry at Cornell University, but he apparently spent more
            time on ham radio than in chemistry labs. To understand more about radios, Frank
            started to concentrate on physics. He also moonlighted in various physics labs,
            where he began his career as an electronic instrument designer. He graduated
    
    
                 
    
    
             FRANKLIN F.OFFNER                                        190
    
             from Cornell University in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and went
             on to Caltech, where he obtained a master’s degree in 1934 in physical chemistry
             under Linus Pauling. As Frank was fond of telling, the Caltech education was
             spectacular and set him up for life with a basic background in physics, upon
             which much of his later success was built. He excelled among his fellows, passing
             his qualifying exams with the highest grade and impressing Pauling with his
             ingenious solution to his master’s thesis problem.
                Frank wanted to continue toward a doctorate in theoretical chemistry, but
             could not financially afford to stay at Caltech. Instead, he secured a small stipend
             in the physics Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. While taking courses,
             he also developed a reputation as the resident electronics expert, and people came
             to him with problems to solve from all over campus. Eventually he was offered a
             technician’s job in the laboratory of Ralph Gerard, an early pioneer of
             bioelectricity Frank designed and built amplifiers, which allowed them to view on
             primitive oscilloscopes action potentials in the frog’s sciatic nerve. As Frank told
            it later: viewing these nerve spikes changed his life’s work. He would unravel the
            mystery of the action potential. That is when he decided to become a
            biophysicist. Gerard wanted to study the then newly discovered
            electroencephalogram. To understand this complex signal, it was insufficient
            simply to view it on the oscilloscope. One needed a permanent record. Frank
            constructed the world’s first direct-writing oscillograph, using a piezo-crystal to
            move the pen and thereby achieving excellent frequency response. Soon after
            this, to enable the recording of EEGs from several electrodes, he constructed the
            world’s first differential amplifier. The direct-writing oscillograph, equipped with
            differential amplifiers, was the forerunner of virtually all contemporary EEG and
            EKG machines. Frank built many of these and eventually licensed his invention
            of the portable EKG machine to a commercial company for manufacturing.
                Meanwhile, there was also thesis work to do. Under the direction of Carl
            Eckart, in collaboration with Alvin Weinberg and Gale Young, Frank developed a
            mathematical model of nerve conduction. The model assumed that an electrical
            resistance
    
    
                 
    
    
             FRANKLIN F.OFFNER                                        191
    
             change should accompany the nerve impulse. Such was actually measured in the
             squid axon by Cole and Curtis in the same year. The theory was published in
             1940 and was a starting point for the most influential theory and model in all
             neuroscience, the Hodgkin/Huxley model of the nerve impulse.
                After receiving a Ph.D. in 1938, Frank, with some encouragement from
             potential customers and with the sum of $500, started Offner Electronics. One of
             his first projects was the design of an EKG machine to monitor and transmit
             cardiac electric signals from a free-falling parachutist to ground observers. This
             was probably the first telemetered biological data. By this time World War II was
             in full force and Frank wanted to offer his talents to the war effort. He established a
             long and successful relationship with Hamilton Standard, where he solved the
             problem of measuring vibrations of propellers. This was necessary to help
             compensate for these vibrations, and the results hugely advanced propeller design
             and the success of our aircraft in World War II. Among the many war projects for
             which he was responsible are infrared missile guidance systems and heat-homing
             glide bombs, electronic fuel controls for jet engines, and the phase synchronizer
             for multipropeller planes. Offner Electronics also built many of the scalers, or
             Geiger counter circuits, used in the Manhattan Project.
                After the war, Offner and Offner Electronics returned to the manufacture of
             EEG recorders. After the invention of the transistor in 1952, Frank was among
             the first to see its extraordinary potential in electronic circuits, and by 1956 the
             first transistorized EEG machine was on the market. This, the Type R
             Dynograph, became the world standard. That year was actually the most
             important in Frank’s life, for on a business trip to Europe he met and later married
            his wife, Janine. In 1961 Offner Electronics merged with Beckman Instruments,
            and Frank began working for the combined outfit. The working styles of Arnold
            Beckman and Frank Offner were too different for the partnership to last, and in
            1963 Frank left industry. He became a professor of biophysics at Northwestern
            University in the Electrical Engineering Department, where, until he achieved
            emeritus status some twenty-five years later, he was paid $1 a year.
    
    
                 
    
    
             FRANKLIN F.OFFNER                                        192
    
                At Northwestern, Frank continued his exploration of membrane biophysics,
            publishing a number of models for bioelectric membrane processes; all based on
            his exquisite understanding of physics and chemistry. Because of the highly
            mathematical and complex nature of his work, Frank often encountered
            difficulties with journal reviewers and editors. All of us had occasion to listen to
            him rail about some poor, stupid soul who couldn’t solve a differential equation
            if his life depended on it, yet stood in judgment over Frank’s latest intellectual
            offspring. During the last few years of his active career, he became interested in
            the auditory system, and one of us worked on several projects together with him.
                While there were some difficulties in disseminating his written work, there
            were also signs of recognition of his extraordinary contributions. Among these
            were fellowship in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the
            receipt of the Institute’s Centennial Medal. He was also a Laureate in Technology
            of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, a recipient of the Professional Achievement
            Citation from the Alumni Association of the University of Chicago, and a
            member of the National Academy of Engineering. And with more than sixty
            patents, many papers and books, and fresh ideas daily, Frank influenced those of
            us lucky enough to interact with him. But his influence extends to many others
            —there is hardly a research lab or hospital lab in the world that does not make
            use of equipment that can be traced to Offner. Every time you fly on a jet plane,
            it is the successors of his controllers that keep the engines humming. When you
            are on a multiengine prop plane, it is his synchronizers that allow the plane to fly
            smoothly. We hope you don’t fire any heat-seeking missiles, but if you do…
            remember Frank.
    
    
                 
    
    
             FRANKLIN F.OFFNER                                                193
    
    
                  
    • Previous
    •    Table of Contents
    • Next