History of the Midwest Mechanics Seminar

written Spring 2002, by Hassan Aref, Seminar Secretary 2002
updated Summer 2003, by James W. Phillips, Seminar Secretary 2003

The Midwest Mechanics Seminar series was started by Professor Phil Hodge. He describes its inception this way:

“I came to Illinois Institute of Technology about 1957 and was immediately put in charge of their monthly seminar program. We had a limited budget and it occurred to me that our money would go further if we could cooperate with some of the other midwestern schools that had mechanics programs. I wrote to the appropriate chairs at several universities and received enthusiastic responses from six of them… Many schools had a traditional day of the week for their seminars but others were flexible, and it was not too difficult to work out a two-week tour that made reasonable geographic sense. Speakers were offered their choice of one long tour in two consecutive weeks, or splitting it into two separate tours. Since I had no desire at all to spend time on finances, we agreed to offer a fixed honorarium, with each school paying the same amount directly to the speaker. In addition, each host was responsible for room and meals of the speaker for the time he (and for many years it was only ‘he’) was at their location. Frequently this was done by inviting the speaker to someone’s home.”

The Midwest Mechanics Seminar operates much this way today. The number of schools has grown to ten, divided into two tours referred to as Tour A (Northwestern University, University of Notre Dame, IIT, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Purdue University) on a Monday through Friday, and Tour B (University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Iowa State, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and University of Minnesota) on a Monday through Friday.

Hodge continues:

“The initial figure was $100 per speaker per school. At that time the $700 total was more than enough to cover the total transportation bill. Every few years we would up the amount to keep up with inflation. Many speakers brought their wives on the tour with them, and would still break almost even. Since the whole point of it was to achieve a notably lower cost per speaker, we tried to get people from far away so that they’d only have one big airfare for several engagements. It was a firm policy not to invite anyone from the Midwest, and for many years it was a policy not to reinvite a speaker. I would make use of the grapevine and try to find out which eminent people from abroad were coming to the United States for some other reason, and try to set things up for them to make the tour. At first I tried to schedule a meeting of a representative from each school at the ASME Winter Annual Meeting, but after a few years attendance had dwindled to the point that we did everything by mail. This was long before email, of course.”

A surprising amount of what was put in place early on remains in force today. The per school honorarium or reimbursement for travel expenses stands at $400 currently (in 2002), and the convention that each host is responsible for local expenses is still applied, although restaurants are probably the more common venue for meals rather than people’s homes. The participating schools vote on a ballot of potential speakers each year, the vote at each school being arranged by the coordinator at that school. Individuals working in the Midwest are not ‘eligible’ for invitation. We have frequent visitors from overseas – the contribution per school and the general price of airfares have allowed us regularly to invite speakers from Europe and have them accept the invitation.

Hodge recounted another anecdote from his many years coordinating the Seminar:

“One of our early speakers was very much aware of his own importance. At the time I believe our honorarium was $125 per school. His typed letter of acceptance included something like, ‘an honorarium of $3,000 per lecture would be a better indication of my worth’, but handwritten in the margin was, ‘I said $300, but my secretary misread it. I suppose that given the attitude of college administrators, either figure is equally unrealistic’.”

We cannot guarantee similar happy endings for all Midwest Mechanics speakers, but gathering from their feedback the experience of touring these many universities in a short time, meeting lots of colleagues, giving their lectures to interested and eager audiences, and sampling some warm midwestern hospitality makes the effort well worthwhile and a unique event in their academic lives. The faculty and students at the participating schools greatly appreciate the willingness of our speakers to put themselves through this – it is a bit of an ordeal. We look forward to the upcoming seasons and hope for many more years of great lectures in this series.