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Former Ohio University mechanical engineering professor, power systems pioneer passes away

Colleen Carow | Aug 3, 2016

Former Ohio University mechanical engineering professor, power systems pioneer passes away

Colleen Carow | Aug 3, 2016

William Taylor Beale, a former Ohio University mechanical engineering faculty member with a distinguished career in the development and manufacturing of new engine and power generation systems, passed away Sun., July 24.

Beale served on the faculty of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology from 1960 to 1974. In 1964, he created a new form of Stirling engine known as the Free-Piston Stirling Engine, which featured significant improvements in performance and simplicity.

His former colleague Israel Urieli, now an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering, said Beale inspired those around him as he left his mark on the world.

“William Beale was a man of ideas and actions, whose mind never stopped looking for ways to improve the world, even to the end,” he said. “His creativity and passion provide an excellent role model for our students to follow.”

Beale served as a naval radar technician during the final year of World War II. Later, while pursuing a master’s degree that included the study of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he resolved never to use the knowledge for its intended purpose and became an activist for disengagement in military conflict during the Vietnam War, rejecting a weapons development contract that would have bolstered his then-struggling small business.

According to the blog www.visioningthefuture.org, he developed the Stirling engine while teaching, noticing students dozing in his thermal class.

“I was looking at all these blank faces thinking, ‘I’m wasting my time. I’m not getting anywhere with these guys. They’re not interested in this subject. What am I gonna do?’” he was quoted in the blog. Beale then created his own course – “Projects in Thermal Machinery” – asking the students to invent something in one semester.

“That’s where I invented the free-piston Stirling engine, because I was just showing the class an example. That was my motor,” he wrote.

He obtained a patent in 1971 and left the University in 1974 to found Sunpower, Inc., in Athens, Ohio. Over the years, Beale received 26 patents for his work, and his company spun off two additional Athens technology firms, Stirling Technology, Inc. and Global Cooling, Inc. Sunpower was purchased in 2011 and now is operated by Ametek, Inc.

In 2013, Beale received the Konneker Medal for Commercialization and Entrepreneurship, given by the Ohio University Foundation to recognize current and former faculty members or students who have demonstrated excellence in innovation, invention, commercialization and entrepreneurship.

Upon that awarding, Joseph Shields, vice president for research and creative activity and dean of the Graduate College, spoke of Beale’s influence.

"William Beale is a pioneer in creating an important new technology at Ohio University and translating it into products to benefit society.  The persistence he demonstrated as an entrepreneur is an inspiration to current students and faculty who want to make a difference through innovation," Shields said.

Beale continued to work on new technologies. Following his retirement from Sunpower, he invented a new approach to a continuously variable transmission, upon which a second company, Beale Innovations, Inc., was founded. The technology is still in development, but has potential for improving the efficiency of cars, bicycles and motor-driven industrial equipment such as blowers and pumps.

A true educator, Beale delighted in encouragement of the next generation, hosting a Saturday Science Seminar for local youth. He continued to read and write throughout his life to emphasize that straightforward engineering and high-minded conservation are the basic underlying principles of a visionary life well led. His most recent essays can be read at www.visioningthefuture.org/.

Beale held master’s degrees from Caltech and MIT.

A public memorial service will be hosted by the Athens Friends Meeting in September. Contributions in his memory would be welcomed by organizations working on carbon reduction goals such as Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio, at www.communitysolution.org/, Union of Concerned Scientists at www.ucsusa.org/, and Rural Action of Athens, Ohio, at ruralaction.org/.

Photos courtesy of the Beale family.

The Office of Research Communications contributed to this story.