GEORGE J. HUEBNER
WRITTEN BY JAMES W. FURLONG
SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME SECRETARY
GEORGE J. HUEBNER, JR., one of the foremost engineers in the field of automotive research, was especially noted for developing the first practical gas turbine for a passenger car. He died of pulmonary edema in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on September 4, 1996.
George earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1932. He began work in the mechanical engineering laboratories at Chrysler Corporation in 1931 and completed his studies on a part-time basis.
He was promoted to assistant chief engineer of the Plymouth Division in 1936 and returned to the Central Engineering Division in 1939 to work with Carl Breer, one of the three engineers who had designed the first Chrysler vehicle fifteen years earlier. George was especially pleased to work for Breer, whom he regarded as one of the most capable engineers in the country.
Breer established a research office in 1939 and named George as his assistant. It became evident to George that he should bring more science into the field. When he became chief engineer in 1946, he enlarged the activities of Chrysler Research into the fields of physics, metallurgy, and chemistry. He was early to use the electron microscope.
George also was early to see the need for digital computers in automotive engineering. Largely in recognition of this pioneering work, he was awarded the Buckendale Prize for computer-
based engineering work by the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1959.
George's research work covered a wide range of activities, including development of adhesives, use of radioactive isotopes, design and test of a sonic oil well drill, basic research on exhaust catalysts, and the development of standard instruments for accurate measurement of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide in exhaust emissions. He held about forty patents and wrote seventeen technical papers. In 1960 he became president of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, a postgraduate school for engineers. He held this position until his retirement.
George's work in engines was impressive. His group designed a large liquid-cooled inverted V-16 fighter aircraft engine in the late 1940s. Under a 1949 U.S. Navy contract, he was responsible for the design and development of a 1,000-horsepower turboprop aircraft engine with a recuperative heat exchanger. He was also responsible for the design of the first automotive V-8 engine with a hemispheric combustion chamber.
George saw the gas turbine as the future engine for automobiles. Automobile turbines can be small, light, and durable and have 80 percent fewer moving parts than a piston engine. They can burn almost any liquid fuel and need no oil changes or radiators. However, little of the experience with aircraft jet engines can be applied to ground vehicles. Instead of operating near maximum power, an automobile engine spends most of its life at 10 to 15 percent load, and its duty cycle consists of constant accelerations and decelerations. Aerodynamic components of automobile turbine engines are extremely small, but must be proportionally as accurate as those in large jet engines and operate at much higher rotational speeds. The engine must be produced at low cost and have excellent fuel economy.
The first prototype turbine was built in 1953 and installed in a production Plymouth car. It was the first of six generations of experimental turbines. In 1963 Chrysler put fifty gas turbines in hand-built vehicles for public assessment. Thirty thousand letters were received from people who wanted to be part of the test. A marketing program selected 203 representative drivers in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia. Each driver
evaluated the engine for three months. The reception among typical potential buyers was enthusiastic. However, the engine needed to be produced at a low cost. George directed the development of low-cost alloys, and his rotary regenerator had solved the fuel economy problem.
Because George normally worked ten to twenty years ahead of production, obtaining funding was a constant problem. Once, the turbine was being shown in Europe, but it was not certain if the development would be continued, even though the public wanted these engines. A delegation of Chrysler directors was convinced of its possible impact when they saw President Charles de Gaulle, of France, kneeling to inspect the vehicle.
Although the engine had met initial air quality standards, with exceptionally low emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, it still needed work to reduce the oxides of nitrogen, which are typically a sign of combustion efficiency. Development of the engine was given a low priority because of a downturn in the industry, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was willing to underwrite some of the cost of further work. George then directed a program to design and test a battery-powered passenger car for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In 1962 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers cited George “for his leadership in the development of the first automotive gas turbine suitable for mass-produced passenger cars.”
Just as the first gas turbine was being built early in 1953, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps awarded Chrysler a development contract to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. George was named executive engineer of the missile branch while still serving as executive engineer of research. He organized a complete missile facility, including research, engineering, testing, and production. The Redstone that was produced was the country's first large liquid-fueled missile. All flew without a single reliability failure. The first U.S. satellites launched into orbit and the first manned space flights used these missiles. George relinquished his missile duties after two years to concentrate on the increased scope of his automotive research.
George was long involved in the activities of the Society of Automotive Engineers. He served for twenty-five years on the
Coordinating Research Council, the research interface between the automotive and petroleum industries, and was elected president of that group twice. He also served as a member of the Automotive Council, the technical board, the executive committee of the Automotive Council, and the Research Council. He served as chair of the Safety Research Advisory Council for two years and also on the board of directors for two years. He was international president of SAE in 1975. The organization awarded him the Elmer A. Sperry Award for engineering contributions that had advanced the art of transportation. He was elected a fellow of the society in 1977.
George was constantly involved in activities of the University of Michigan. He was named a distinguished alumnus, chaired a major fund-raising campaign, and was given the University's Sesquicentennial Award. His wife, Trudy, an early veteran of national advertising, was the only woman elected regent of the University in the state election of 1967. She is involved in activities of the University on an almost daily basis. At his retirement dinner in October 1975, she gave George a lunch pail with the admonition that she married him for better or worse, but not for lunch. Taking the hint, George assumed the chairmanship of the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan, a nonprofit scientific research company, which is the foremost developer of remote sensing systems for spatial and radar systems. This organization developed the prototype for all earth measurement satellites. The institute developed sensors for acquiring data, the attendant computers, and image processing. Science magazine praised the organization for “the foremost sensor research and development in the western world.” He also served on several boards of directors in Michigan and Sweden. He did power plant consulting in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
George was honored for his work many times. He was elected to Tau Beta Pi (honorary engineering fraternity), and Sigma Xi (honorary science fraternity). He served on President Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Science Advisory Panel. He was given the Leadership Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He was also awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by Bucknell University. He
served as a trustee of the Edison Foundation.
George's interests were not confined to his work. He was skilled in woodworking, even designing the shop in his home to be opened to the adjoining garage through a wide door so that he could handle large work pieces. He was skilled in oriental cooking. He spent a great deal of time skin diving and skiing. He played the piano and accordion and was a member of the Explorers Club. He will be remembered by his friends and associates for his skill, dedication, humor, enthusiasm, and an ability to direct the activities of large groups of skilled engineers and scientists.