University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota: Department of Mechanical Engineering

In memoriam: Subbiah Ramalingam
(June 15, 1935 - February 9, 2019)

Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Fellow, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), 1986
Member, National Academy of Engineering (NAE) , 1998

Ram enjoyed a distinguished career as a researcher and teacher, spanning close to 50 years. Ram received the Taylor Research Medal from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and was a member in many learned and professional societies, including the Materials Research Society, the American Society of Metals, and the North American Manufacturing Research Institute. He authored or co-authored more than one hundred articles, and held six patents. His major research included modeling thin films for tribological applications, intelligent sensors, real-time sensing for manufacturing automation, solid lubricants, thin film deposition processes and coating technology, machining theory, metal forming, and manufacturing automation. He taught courses in the materials aspect of bio-medical design.

Ram is regarded as one of the pioneers in the study of machining processes, sensors, and friction and wear (tribology). He began his distinguished career teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1980, where he was also the first Director of the Productivity Center. He had taught previously at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, SUNY at Buffalo, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A sabbatical year in Australia was jointly supported by Monash University (Visiting Professor), BHP's Melbourne Research Laboratories, CSIRO's Division of Tribophysics, and the Australian Ministry of Defence Materials Research Laboratories. Because he admired the Society's journal, Ram became the first non-Japanese member of the Japan Society for Precision Engineering, traveling several times to Japan, and mastering conversational Japanese.
Ram was sought after as a consultant, and gave many invited lectures at universities in the U.S.A., Italy, Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands. He loved to travel, where he often combined laboratory visits with sightseeing. The ingenuity of an engineer enriched the experience of travel. He timed the famous Echo beside the ch√Ęteau in Chinon (3/4ths of a second). He saw ancient cylinder seals in museums and noted their relationship to repetitive processes in manufacturing. He saw early Jacquard looms in museums in France and Italy and commented on their descendants in Babbage's computers and IBM's punch cards. The open-air museums (Freilichtmuseen) in Germany, where he found examples of early machinery, craft implements, and manufacturing tools, both on display and in use, were a particular delight for him.

Ram was born in Udumalpet, Tamil-Nadu (India). His father and elder brother were engineers. With funds borrowed by his brother, he entered the new, highly-competitive Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, where he also organized a Film Society (showing movies on a suspended bed-sheet), and wrote poetry. From his student days, Ramalingam pursued the Tamilian love of argument, often taking the opposite side to the prevailing view, in order to keep the discussion lively. On graduation (1956), he worked as a Planning and Forging Engineer for Hindustan Motors, Ltd. (Uttapara, West Bengal). Then, encouraged by a visiting professor from America, he was accepted at the U. of Illinois (1960), where he took every demanding course in the hard sciences he could find, and was promptly made an instructor. (He also began to support the professional studies of his two younger brothers.) In 1966, while still a student, he co-authored with his senior professor a small handbook on metals that remained in use for decades.

On completion of his Ph.D. degree and immediate promotion to Assistant Professor (1967), Ram & Vivian married, and his new wife was admonished by Ram's two advisors to "take good care of Ram, for he would solve all the problems in the field." Their circle of young newlyweds lived in a small housing development, next to fallow land. The farmer agreed to let them put up a volleyball net, but they couldn't afford to purchase one. Having learned to knot a fisherman's net as his fourth-grade craft skill, Ram sat in the middle of the living-room floor, the thick twine looped around his big toe for tension, and made a net so sturdy that on its first trial it withstood the impact of a 275-lb forward.
Over his lifetime, Ram supervised the accomplishments of many students, who were united in their appreciation of his command of the material and the respect he showed them as potential colleagues. While he was still a young instructor, Ram liked to get together with his friends for pizza and beer after a long day of teaching, studying and lab work. One night, a pitcher of beer that he had not ordered appeared at Ram's table. The waiter pointed out a young man, whom Ram recognized as a former student. The young man came to the table then, and told Ram that he had sent the pitcher as a Thank-you. Of all the classes he had taken in the Mechanical Engineering program, Ram's course was the only one for which he did not have to re-learn the material when he began his first job.

In letters sent to his family and colleagues after his death, Ram is universally called an admirable, unique, inspiring scientist and teacher, a man of exceptional intellectual integrity, and a generous friend who had enriched their lives. Ram's friends were friends for life. His lively, imaginative, joyful, inquiring mind was a constant force in the lives of all those who knew him and loved him. When a Dutch company specializing in PVD coatings bought first rights to Ram's first patent, the young physicist hired to help implement it became so excited by the ideas behind the invention, he turned down a better-paying job offer at the largest Dutch electronics company, in order to continue working with Ram.
His colleagues describe him as a master in his field. He was recommended by many of them as a model for their own students to follow. From China and Japan, India, Australia and Europe, and in America, they sent their students to work under his guidance. Years later, many of these former students have written to say that working with S. Ramalingam was one of the great experiences of their lives. One younger colleague writes, “Ram was a very important supporter and mentor in my early career. He was one of the cleverest men I had the privilege to work with and call a dear friend. There was a period where our work overlapped, it was a very exciting time in my life. I am forever grateful and thankful for having spent quality time with a wonderful man.” Ram saw the goodness in others. A former student from Iran writes, “I credited him with making me a better person and him with the successes I had technically. After graduate school I followed what I learnt from him and created a few successful companies in that field. Beside his technical teachings, he was the only professor who (would) give me a job at school during the Iran Hostage crisis. That was the biggest lesson for me. I am trying to do the same - help people get started in life. Dr. Ram will be missed dearly.”

Funeral rites and charitable acts have been performed in India, in accordance with the family tradition of prayer and public service. A Mechanical Engineering symposium in his honor and a memorial dinner are planned. Contributions in his memory may be addressed to C. Dan Mote, President, National Academy of Engineering, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington D.C. 20418. Cremation by Anderson Funeral Home (651) 776-2761