Freudenstein Lecture Celebrates the “Father of Modern Kinematics”

The seminal work of legendary Columbia Engineering Professor Ferdinand Freudenstein continues to shape the fields of kinematics and mechanical design, said J. Michael McCarthy, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine, in this year’s Freudenstein Distinguished Lecture.

McCarthy's talk examined Freudenstein’s mechanical design techniques and how they mesh with what is now known as computer-aided design.
—Image courtesy of J. Michael McCarthy

Later known as the “father of modern kinematics,” as a SEAS PhD candidate in the early 1950s Freudenstein developed what became known as the “Freudenstein equation,” which uses an algebraic method to determine the position of an output lever in a linkage mechanism. His work revolutionized the art and science of mechanical design, helping bring kinematics synthesis into the computer age.

“In the 1940s design of linkages was a high art, with computation depending on complex machines and ‘mechanical computers,’ to physically draw them” said McCarthy, director of UCI’s performance engineering program, on campus April 25. “Freudenstein’s techniques meshed perfectly with the computer and what is now known as computer-aided design.”

McCarthy walked the audience through a concise history of mechanical design, going back to the invention of the steam engine and explaining how Freudenstein’s mathematical methods unleashed a universe of new possibilities for today’s mechanical engineering challenges.

“Computers now calculate all possible linkage combinations and see if they work,” McCarthy said. “Today we have iPad apps that build on Freudenstein’s ideas.”

In welcome remarks, Jeffrey Kysar, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, reflected on Freudenstein’s immense influence on the field.

“I never got the chance to meet Professor Freudenstein,” Kysar said. “But I’ve heard wonderful things from his colleagues, including many who are here today.”

A legendary engineer and mentor, Freudenstein spent his entire career working and teaching at Columbia, chairing the Department of Mechanical Engineering and serving as Higgins Professor of Mechanical Engineering for many years before his death in 2006. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Guggenheim fellow, and a recipient of the Egleston Medal.

Hosted by the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the annual Freudenstein Lecture highlights outstanding scholarship from across the field. It was established in 2011 through the generosity of Hitoshi Tanaka BS’63, MS’65, EngScD’76. Previous lecturers include Bernie Roth MS’58, PhD’62 of Stanford University and Steven Dubowsky MS’64, EngScD’71 of MIT.

—by Jesse Adams

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