A Tough Approach To Science Of Breaks

September 01, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

When a tank of superheated water lets go and crashes through a pulp plant like a bomb, it means that a sheet of steel somewhere has failed. It means that someone might be sued. It means that H. H Keith might be asked to take a look.

Keith has made a life study of how and why things fail: steel, ceramics, even people, especially young people. Keith, who teaches mechanical engineering at the Naval Academy, looks at a crack in a piece of steel as a historian might look at a political revolution. Forces were at work, and somewhere along the pressure line something gave.

He's got the intensity one might expect of a man who has spent a great deal of time looking closely at things and pushing others to dothe same. His dark eyes are set beneath a furrowed forehead and arched eyebrows. His nickname among the midshipmen is "Killer" Keith.

The sobriquet, he said, is "a reference to very hard grading. It's a set of standards that the students are familiar with. I do have my standards, and you will do it my way. I am not running a democracy."

And he is not pleased with the trend he sees lately in students' approach to their studies. He said they seem to ask fewer questions thanthey used to, probe less deeply and be more easily satisfied with a facile solution.

"They can get the answer if they can push the button on the calculator the right way, but they don't know where it came from," he said. "It's the will to look, the will to beat your head against the wall until you accomplish something. I think you take a lot of the quality out of your life when you don't do that, because you can't say, 'Damnit, I did it.' "

An academy instructor since 1964, Associate Professor Harry H (which stands for nothing, hence no period after the initial) Keith now teaches two sections of an engineering class, called strength of materials, in which students learn to calculate stresses and forces that act upon, and sometimes conspire tofracture, materials. He is given to peppering his theoretical lectures with reminders of the working world of engineering.

"Don't screw up," he told a class last Friday as he wrote a formula on the blackboard. "Engineers get sued when they screw up. When something falls on their head, people don't like that. So be cautious."

In an interview, the 55-year-old native of San Pedro, Calif., described himself as a "pragmatic engineer. My interest is not in research but in problem solving."

He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his doctoral thesis examined fractures in ceramics at high temperatures. The research -- focusing on materials that might be suitable for making aircraft nose cones -- was sponsored by Wright Air Development.

Keith's curiosity and penchant for solving engineering problems has carried him in sundry directions. He worked with an academy midshipman and the Aluminum Company of America to help find the sunken remains of the Civil War ship Monitor off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1974. The key was using a hunk of Civil War-era metal from the U.S.S. Tecumseh and analyzing the pattern the metal created on a magnetometer. The searchers then used a magnetometer to look for a duplicate pattern on the sea bottom where the Monitor sank.

In the 1960s, he did research on materials that could be used for flak jackets -- the problem of finding light materials capable of absorbing tremendous energy.

Lately, Keith divides his work time between the classroom and theworld of industrial accidents. Companies and lawyers call on him after disaster strikes. They might want to know why it happened, how they might prevent such accidents in the future or to what degree they might be held liable. Sometimes they want Keith to testify as an expert witness.

So when five people were killed when a steel tank of 350-degree water cracked and shot through an Alabama wood pulp plant, the firm had its lawyers call on Keith to peruse the wreckage. He determined that the tank had succumbed to corrosion and fatigue. The damage came to nearly $5 million.

This was four years ago. The plant owners' representatives had to track Keith down in Marathon, Fla., midway along the Florida Keys, where Keith and his wife, Malinda, were living on their 40-foot ketch, the Lanikai. Keith says that every few years he must leave Annapolis and take to the sea to live on his boatoff Florida.

Sailing runs in the blood. It was Keith's father, Navy Lt. Cmdr. H. H Keith, who volunteered in 1942 to rescue five officers and 20 men from the Philippine island of Corregidor, then under Japanese attack. He sailed some 3,000 miles from Corregidor to westernAustralia aboard a 73-foot sailboat. The name of the boat was Lanikai, Hawaiian for "sea haven."

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