NATHAN E. PROMISEL
Elected in 1978
“For national and international leadership in materials development for aircraft and for national materials policy.”
BY BHAKTA RATH
NATHAN E. PROMISEL, a retired metallurgical engineer who was chief materials engineer of the Naval Air Systems Command for 25 years, died on December 15, 2005, at the age of 97. He was known to his colleagues as “Mr. Materials Science” and is credited for helping make the Command’s materials laboratory one of the leading research facilities in the nation. Nate was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1978.
He was born June 20, 1908, in Malden, Massachusetts. He skipped three years of elementary school. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the latter in 1930.
Concerned about future job prospects, and faced with a nice offer, he left MIT upon receipt of his master’s degree in 1930 and went to work for the International Silver Company in Meriden, Connecticut, where he was assistant director of the laboratory. He was with the company from 1930 to 1940 and, at the same time, continued his studies at Yale University, where he also earned B.S. and M.S. degrees.
In 1931 he married Evelyn Sarah Davidoff, a registered nurse, to whom he was happily married for more than 50 years, until Evelyn died in 1995. At the time of his own death , Nate had a son, two daughters-in-law, five grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren; another son had died in 1998.
From 1940 to 1966, Nate was chief materials scientist and engineer for the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. From 1955 to 1964 he was the recipient of outstanding accomplishment awards from the Navy Department. From 1959 to 1971 he was member and chairman of the NATO (AGARD) Structures and Materials Panel. In 1962–1963 he was science attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London.
He was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, and from 1959 to 1974 he was chairman of its aerospace materials division He was a member of the American Society for Testing and Materials and was its honorary annual distinguished lecturer in 1964. He was also a member of the Alpha Sigma Mu honorary society.
From 1967 to 1970 he was U.S. representative to the Materials Research Advisory Group at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 1970 he was named annual honorary lecturer of the Electrochemistry Society. He was a fellow of the British Metals Society, the Society for Advanced Materials and Process Engineering, the British Institution of Metallurgists, and the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME). The AIME also honored him by selecting him as an honorary member and an annual honorary lecturer.
He served as advisor to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lehigh University, the University of Pennsylvania, U.S. Navy laboratories and the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment.
Over the course of his 25 years at the Navy Department, Nate was responsible for a number of bold, far-reaching projects. Under his leadership and supervision, the Navy initiated the refractory sheet metal program, a titanium structural program, development of high-temperature alloys for gas turbines, and the development of carbon fibers, among other programs. Nate was often referred to as the “father of titanium” for his pioneering work to recognize the potential of titanium and to push its development aggressively. Similarly, he provided the stimulus for new lubricants and nonflammable hydraulic fluids.
In 1966, Promisel left the U.S. Navy to become executive director of what is now the National Materials Advisory Board (NMAB) of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. While he was there, the board expanded its work from government defense studies to work for all government agencies, as well as for private industry, academia, and professional societies.
Realizing the importance of bringing together many materials societies in order that the societies could speak with one voice in the halls of power, Nate conceived and became the co-founder of the Federation of Materials Societies (FMS). He was the federation’s first president (1972–1973), its executive secretary for a few years following his retirement from the NMAB, and the first recipient of the federation’s Decennial Award.
Promisel was named president of what is now the American Society for Materials International in 1971. He was lauded as someone who had great respect in the field and ability to organize and persuade. He recognized the potential uses of titanium as an important structural material for aerospace use earlier than most and stimulated the development of lubricants and nonflammable hydraulic fluids. Over the years the society honored him by naming him a fellow, an honorary member, Carnegie lecturer (1959), Burgess Award recipient (1961), and annual honorary lecturer (1984).
From 1973 to 1977, Nate chaired the U.S. Materials Group, which was part of the U.S./ USSR Science Exchange Program. He was the honorary guest of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He was the permanent honorary president of the International Conference on Materials Behavior and director of the Value Engineering Company.
He was named National Capitol Engineer of 1974 by the Council of Engineering and Architectural Societies. In the announcement accompanying the award, the society said:
Mr. Promisel is recognized in the materials field as being the one engineer during the past 30 years most closely associated with the development of numerous
high strength light alloys and sophisticated high strength refractory alloys, now widely employed in advanced aircraft and space systems, including their required fabrication techniques…. No other person in recent history more worthily deserves the title “Mr. Materials Science.”
He pioneered the development of tungsten and molybdenum alloys for many applications, including their use in rocket nozzles.
After retiring from the NMAB, Nate consulted extensively. He received an honorary doctorate in engineering from the Michigan Technological University in 1978. In 1994 he received the National Materials Advancement Award from the FMS.
He published more than 40 papers, co-authored or edited five books, including Advances in Materials Research (1963); Science and Technology of Refractory Metals (1964); and Science, Technology and Application of Titanium; (1970). He lectured extensively. He was credited with advancing the practice of electroplating, which uses electric current to apply a thin, even coat of metal on an object.
Beginning in 2001, Mr. Promisel began what he called an “informal conversation” with his grandson, Brett. He said it was “by no means an autobiography” but “a somewhat random accumulation of snapshots and vignettes fueled by a wistful odyssey down memory lane.” It was dedicated to “those generations of the Promisel clan who have the curiosity to glance back.” The conversation, transcribed by Brett, was a wonderful bonding experience and yielded a fascinating memoir. It displays the qualities that Mr. Promisel passed on to his next generations and for which he was widely respected: integrity, aggressiveness in the pursuit of what one believes in, devotion to family, and curiosity about the world.