Gordon Ball Wilkes was born in Buffalo, New York on May 13, 1889. He received his S.B. degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 1911, and he immediately joined the MIT Department of Physics as an assistant in Heat Measurements. The next year, he was promoted to Instructor in Heat Measurements, a position that he held until 1918. After a three month leave of absence at the end of 1918, he rejoined the Physics Department as an Assistant Professor of Industrial Physics. Wilkes became an Associate Professor in 1924 and was promoted to Full Professor in 1930.
In 1934, Wilkes -- and the Heat Measurements Laboratory -- transferred to the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He thereafter used the title Professor of Heat Engineering. Wilkes served as the Director of the Heat Measurements Laboratory until his retirement in June 1954, after 43 years of teaching and research.
Wilkes was an authority on thermal conductivity and thermal expansion at high temperatures. During his tenure, the Heat Measurements Laboratory performed extensive measurements of the thermal properties of materials, developing technologies that were later commercialized by Dynatech Corporation and others. His work resulted in new standards for the measurement of the thermal conductivity of insulations. Wilkes published about 20 technical papers on insulation and thermal radiation between 1919 and 1945. These articles appeared in such journals as J. Amer. Ceramic Soc., Ind. Chem. Engr., and ASHVE J. He was also the author of a book titled Heat Insulation (1950).
Wilkes spent many summers consulting for industry on refractories, asbestos products, reflective insulations, and thermal conductivity measurements. The companies with which he worked included Harbison-Walker Refractories, Norton Laboratories, Johns-Manville, Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (G.E.), and many local firms including Arthur D. Little, Inc. and Stone & Webster. The Heat Measurement Laboratory's apparatus was in constant demand by companies needing property measurements, and Wilkes facilitated these efforts.
Wilkes was a Fellow of the Ceramics Society, and a member of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers (now ASHRAE), the International Institute of Refrigerating and Heating, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Professor Wilkes lived in an era somewhat different from our own. His MIT biographical sketch notes that "He belongs the University Club of Boston, the Hunnewell Club in Newton, and the Portsmouth (N.H.) Yacht Club" and that he had a summer home in Newington, New Hampshire. After his retirement, Wilkes lived in East Orleans on Cape Cod. He died on February 16, 1976 at the age of 86.
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