The two were honored for their 50 years of service to the university and its students.
From developing the concepts used today for storing cotton in the field before it heads to the gin, to the development of the renowned National Wind Institute and the methods of testing used within it, the two Texas Tech University engineering professors have been instrumental to the research that has had an impact both on safety and the economy across the country.
Smith and Mehta were honored Wednesday (April 29) for their 50 years of service to Texas Tech at the annual Length of Service Awards ceremony. A total of 308 employees, ranging from 15 to 50 years of service, were honored during a reception at the Red Raider Ballroom inside the Student Union Building.
“While we recognize Dr. Mehta and Dr. Smith for 50 years of service to Texas Tech University, today truly reflects the dedication of two individuals who have given a great share of their lives to educating students,” Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis said. “Their commitment to this great university is what makes Texas Tech such a special place. It is my hope all of our employees who have served 50 years or more are inspirations for those following them.”
No two people have had more of an impact when it comes to tornado and wind safety than Smith and Mehta. Mehta's research of wind damage from tornado impact led directly to changes in the Fujita scale used to measure tornados, resulting in the Enhanced Fujita, or EF, scale. He also was part of the group that helped found what is now known as the National Wind Institute, known around the world for its research on wind energy and impact.
Speaking of impact, Smith's study of hail impact damage led directly to the development of the pneumatic cannon that shot ice balls meant to resemble hail, which eventually led to the more well-known 2-by-4 pneumatic cannon used to test the damage done by flying debris picked up by tornados and hurricanes.
“We are very proud of these two pillars within our community of scholars,” said Al Sacco Jr., dean of the Whitacre College of Engineering. “Their outstanding service of more than 50 years is truly a milestone for them and also for us. These two men have both been instrumental in making the Whitacre College of Engineering what it is today: a top-tier engineering school.”
Following in his brother's footsteps, Smith came to Texas Tech as an undergraduate student from Childress in the late 1950s, earning his bachelor's degree in industrial engineering in 1961. After serving 33 months in the Air Force, where he helped develop manning and staffing standards for different functions within the Air Force, Smith returned to Texas Tech to pursue his master's and doctorate degrees.
During this time Smith set on the path toward his first major impact on society. Just as he was completing his doctorate degree, an opportunity developed to participate in a research project examining the economic impacts of every aspect of cotton farming between harvesting and delivery to the mill. In particular, Smith did a cost analysis of the impact between harvesting cotton in the field and delivery to the gin.
What he discovered was harvesters worked much faster than ginners, and that meant a gigantic backlog of cotton-filled trailers sitting on gin lots, unable to be used to haul more cotton until they were emptied. That limited gins to operating six full weeks instead of possibly double that.
“Trailers spent almost all their useful life sitting on the gin yard rather than being transportation devices,” Smith said. “That was the one thing no one had looked at before was the interface between harvesting and ginning.”
Smith's solution was to store the cotton in the field, compacted sufficiently so it would stay in place, until it was ready to be hauled to the gin. Surprisingly, Smith said, farmers leapt into this method of storage. This method of storage eventually led to the development of cotton modules, which are used today, which Smith estimates saves the cotton industry between $500 million and $1 billion a year in costs.
“Having grown up in Childress, and of course all the people we knew were cotton farmers, almost all of them, they paid taxes that educated me in first through 12th grade and paid the taxes that funded Texas Tech,” Smith said. “To give something back to them was just fantastic.”
Smith moved on to study hail impact on the Crosbyton Solar Energy Project in the late 1970s, and that led to the development of the pneumatic cannons that shot ice balls and, eventually, 2-by-4 pieces of lumber that simulated wind-blown debris from tornados and hurricanes. He also worked on a project to document damage from flying glass from the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
Through it all, however, being able to send young, inspired engineers on the path to discovery has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his 50 years of service to Texas Tech.
“I've taught a lot of undergraduate and graduate classes,” Smith said. “Just the good feelings graduates have for the program they went through is the best thing. The Industrial Engineering department has national and international reputations and is regarded as a quality institution, and I think the quality of our program is as good as any place in the country.”
Mehta, a Horn Professor of Civil Engineering, arrived at Texas Tech in 1964 after earning his doctorate from the University of Texas. He was immediately drawn to wind research. He paired on several projects with fellow professors Joe Minor and Jim McDonald, who later became the chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department.
It was a West Texas dust storm in 1968, however, that put them on the path toward Texas Tech becoming a world leader on the subject of wind and wind damage. That dust storm, Mehta said, collapsed some of the light standards on the east side of Jones Stadium. Mehta and McDonald began doing tests on the standards to determine their load, or how much wind force they could withstand.
Two years later, the event that changed Lubbock furthered their research when the tornado of 1970 swept through the city. That led Mehta to begin testing the wind load for various buildings.
“A lot of buildings collapsed or were severely damaged,” Mehta said. “Though we had no control over it, we thought it would be worthwhile to assemble the data to see if we could understand the mode of damage and the extent of the damage.
“Wind is the natural resource in Lubbock. That is a resource that is always going to be there. With our buildings and tower,s we have to take care of them in extreme conditions. In engineering in the 1970s we did not think about wind energy, but in this millennium we did.”
Mehta's continued research into wind load and damage led to the development of the Texas Tech University Wind Science and Engineering Research Center, which was eventually renamed the National Wind Institute, a nationally respected hub that allows for interdisciplinary education and research on wind science, energy, engineering and wind hazard mitigation.
Today, in conjunction with his work at Texas Tech, Mehta is working for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. as program director for hazard mitigation and structural engineering. It's a long journey from his time in Lubbock.
“Jim McDonald, Joe Minor and I used to sit around a table every Wednesday, and we all agreed we wanted to put Texas Tech and the city of Lubbock on the map,” Mehta said. “It turns out wind was the vehicle that allowed us to do that. In our minds we wanted Texas Tech to be known around the country.”
Now that he's become an expert in how buildings can withstand damaging winds, Mehta wants to find a way to prevent that damage in the first place.
“The goal I have in mind is how do we prevent natural hazards from becoming disasters,” Mehta said. “I want to make communities, and it may take 20 years to do it, resilient to weather damage and be able to recover fairly quickly.”
For a full list of the 2015 Length of Service Award honorees click here.