The Thermal Lab

Michael Bezilla
June 28, 2011
black and white portrait of Louis Harding

Dapper Louis Harding, Thermal Lab founder, was the "best dressed man in town, bar none," according to one of his students.

Penn State is the lead partner among more than 90 organizations in a major federally funded initiative: the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings, at the former Philadelphia Navy Yard. Making buildings more energy efficient is hardly a novel undertaking for Penn State researchers. They have a record of experience and achievement in heat transfer and insulation dating back many years—a hundred, to be exact.

At Penn State in 1911, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Louis Harding directed completion of the Thermal Laboratory, a squat red-brick structure located between Engineering Unit E and the industrial engineering department’s foundry. The lab housed a series of cork-lined rooms, where constant temperatures could be maintained over long periods of time. Harding wanted to study the properties and effects of heat transfer, refrigeration and insulation—interests he had pursued previously as chief engineer for the Armstrong Cork Company.

The lab was no sooner operational than Harding secured a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Highways to investigate the effects of extreme temperatures on pavement types. Although documentation is sketchy, the grant appears to have marked the first time Penn State received state funds to support research in a non-agricultural field.

black and white portrait of Arthur Wood

Arthur J. Wood won industrial support for Thermal Lab research but his untimely death in 1930 was a severe blow to its work.

Highway department officials could have been swayed by Harding’s talent as a showman. He was a popular teacher who often used a theatrical flourish to explain an abstract idea. One of his students recalled entering his classroom one day to find all four walls chalk-lined into one-foot squares, with a dollar bill pinned into each square. That, the professor explained, was how much it would cost to satisfactorily insulate the room.

Harding eventually left Penn State and formed his own building construction company (a pursuit that was profitable enough to enable his widow, Charlotte, to bequeath $300,000 to Penn State as a student loan fund in 1958.)

Arthur J. Wood then assumed direction of the Thermal Lab and sought the support of industry for its work. Wood also headed Penn State’s railway mechanical engineering curriculum and had cultivated close relationships with railroad managers. Using the lab to demonstrate the effectiveness of air spaces as insulators, Wood devised more efficient ways to insulate railway refrigerator cars, an important advance for that era. Low temperatures could be maintained only by adding ice to a car—mechanical refrigeration for railroad applications had yet to be perfected. Insulation was critical to shipping meat and produce over long distances at levels of price and quality that would satisfy consumers.

two ivy covered brick buildings

The windowless, ivy-covered Thermal Lab, flanked by the Foundry building, left, and Engineering Unit E, right, gave few clues as to the important research it housed. Photo at top of page: This view from about 1941 shows the Thermal Lab, center, has been enlarged and windows—indicative of office space—added.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought research at the Thermal Lab to low ebb. Funding dried up, and soaring undergraduate enrollments meant faculty had to devote most of their time to teaching. Professor Wood’s death in a traffic accident also was a serious blow.

Research rebounded during World War II, when $60,000 in federal funds—an impressive sum for the time—supported development of better insulation for prefabricated military buildings that would have to be set up in climatic extremes worldwide. Federal dollars also helped faculty identify improved methods of dehumidifying the thousands of ships that would have to be “mothballed” after the war.

When peace returned, the search resumed for better building insulation; such material would have widespread applications in the nationwide post-war housing boom. The aging lab itself was phased out, giving way to new technologies and new approaches to investigating heat transfer. The building was eventually razed and today is the site of Foundry Park.

Last Updated June 28, 2011