The scientific research community is marking the passing of Louis F. Coffin Jr., a longtime General Electric employee and RPI professor.
Coffin, 90, died Saturday at his summer home on Skaneateles Lake. He lived in Schenectady for nearly 50 years until 1997 and worked at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory and then the GE Research and Development Center. He studied why metal objects break under repeated stress and co-developed a formula — known as the Coffin-Manson equation — which he said predicted “how many times you can bend a paper clip before it breaks.” His research led to improvements in the design and safety of nuclear submarines, aircraft engines and electric power generators.
Coffin graduated from Swarthmore College in 1939 and received his doctorate in materials science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. He started his career as an assistant professor at MIT.
He joined GE in 1949 as a research associate at KAPL, when GE operated it for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In 1955, he transferred to the GE Research Laboratory where he was a mechanical engineer in the materials research laboratory. He retired from GE in 1986.
Todd Alhart, spokesman for GE Global Research, said Coffin was an “international giant” in the metallurgical community. The method he developed for analyzing stress on metals remains a textbook guide for the field. He was also highly respected among his co-workers.
“Lou was a great mentor and an example to his colleagues. He did a lot to help encourage and develop our younger scientists. He was known as someone who was constantly challenging himself and eager to learn new things,” Alhart said.
In 1970, Coffin was a Coolidge Fellow, which is the highest individual honor a researcher can receive for technical achievement at Global Research. It is named for GE scientist and inventor William D. Coolidge, whose innovations in incandescent light filaments and medical imaging X-ray tubes are still used worldwide today.
Coffin held numerous patents for his work. His awards included the Clamer medal from the Franklin Institute in 1984, the Nadai medal from the American Society for Materials Engineering in 1979 and the Kroll award from the American Society for Testing and Materials. In 1975, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Daughter Patsy Coffin said Coffin’s grandfather was an inventor and his father worked at Bethlehem Steel, so that influenced her father’s love for engineering. “It was in his genes, so to speak” she said.
Coffin was part of a group called the citizens committee, which worked closely with the Board of Education to help create Linton High School.
After retiring from General Electric in 1986, he spent the next 10 years as a distinguished research professor at RPI. He also traveled internationally, troubleshooting mechanical failures.
John Tichy, a professor in RPI’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering, said Coffin was very humble.
“He was an extremely modest and gentle and kind person whose contributions to engineering really are quite profound.”
His Coffin-Manson model is still used in computer applications. “His work has stood the test of time,” Tichy said.
In 1997, the Coffins sold their house on Lowell Road in the GE Realty Plot and moved into a retirement community in Lenox, Mass. He designed and built their summer camp at Skaneateles Lake in the Finger Lakes.
Don Lang of Glenville was a friend of one of Coffin’s sons. He described Louis Coffin as intelligent and with a dry sense of humor. “He was always in teaching mode, too, explaining things to you,” he said.
Coffin is survived by his wife Mary and seven children, 15 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
No formal services will be held. A memorial is planned at the family home on Skaneateles Lake at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Donations in his memory can be made to the American Cancer Society.