C. Daniel Mote

C. Daniel Mote
C. Daniel
Mechanical Engineering
Benjamin Franklin Medal

University of Maryland │ College Park, Maryland │ National Academy of Engineering │ Washington, D.C.


For his outstanding contributions, through application of theory, analysis, and inventive experimentation, to the understanding of the dynamics of practical systems such as saws, skis, and conveyor belts, thereby increasing their safety, efficiency, and economy.

C. D. “Dan” Mote, Jr. is a Renaissance man of engineering. From sawmills to ski slopes, Mote’s research has made a variety of everyday objects and processes more efficient, safe, and ecologically sound. His early work on rotating disc stability, which transformed sawing technology and substantially reduced wood waste, applies to drive belts, computer disks, and many other “axial moving materials.” Skiers can trace the origins of the parabolic “shaped ski” and release ski binding developments to Mote’s research on skiing biomechanics—he was the first to measure the complete loading that skiers experience on their legs and knees. Mote has published more than 330 academic papers, mentored 58 Ph.D. students, invigorated a flagship research university, and influenced a new generation of engineers as president of both the University of Maryland and the National Academy of Engineering.

While growing up in California, C. D. “Dan” Mote, Jr. recognized early on that he had more questions than anyone around him had answers. “My biggest problem when I was a kid was that I was interested in everything,” he says. While others focused on specific careers—doctor, teacher, firefighter—Mote craved a life with the freedom to pursue his changing interests and to solve tough problems. That passion led him to an academic career in mechanical engineering.

Mote began his career creating fast, stable, and efficient circular saw blades in the 1960s. He was a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley when a manufacturer of pencil slats, the wooden part of the pencil that contains the graphite, approached Mote with a problem. With the tools at the time, the manufacturer could only cut nine pencil slats from a standard block of cedar while maintaining the surfaces and accuracy needed. The result was a lot of sawdust, which meant wasted wood. “A circular saw blade is actually a gyroscopic system,” Mote explains. “I developed a stability theory for saw blades that enabled predicting how much thinner saw blades could be, while maintaining the needed cutting accuracy and saw stability. With the new blades, the company was able to produce 12 slats from the same block of cedar.” Mote’s research has since been applied far beyond pencil slats to applications where high speed, stable, and thin rotating plates are valuable.

Mote established the methods for determining the critical operating speed for a saw to be stable and showed that the temperature distribution in the saw plate is very important to saw stability. One of his four patents is for a device that controls saw stability by controlling the varying thermal stresses in saw blades during operation. A wide range of practical uses in industry and at home, from band saws, belt drives, and transport systems to computer disk drives and cutters, benefit from his extensive work on spinning surfaces. 

While Mote was an assistant professor at Berkeley, Robert Piziali, a graduate student and fellow skiing enthusiast, became interested in the biomechanics of the ski. Mote and Piziali endeavored to understand both why a ski turns as it shears and compresses the snow surface and how that information can be applied to ski design to improve ease of turning, safety, speed, and stability. As Mote described to the National Academy of Engineering, “The idea was that if you understand how it turns, you could design [skis] ‘better.’” Their resulting 1972 publication, "Mechanics of the Turning Snow Ski," inspired novel designs for new types of “carving” skis and brought Mote a flood of letters from injured skiers asking why the sport had such a high injury rate. With Piziali and a succession of graduate students, Mote took on these engineering questions. 

Mote and Piziali equipped skiers with special wearable measurement tools to analyze the forces and torques on their lower legs and knees. Working with data gathered on the slopes in California and Vermont, they monitored the forces acting on ski boots and bindings and discovered that while newer, stiff plastic ski boots reduced ankle injuries, they increased loading on the knee and knee injuries. They found that to reduce injuries, bindings needed to be adjustable in real time and releases modified to suppress knee injuries. Before Mote’s research in the 1970s and others’ that followed, and the subsequent standards that they influenced, the worldwide injury rate was about seven injuries per 1,000 skiers per day. It has now dropped to about two injuries per 1,000 skiers per day worldwide.

Mote became president of the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) in 1998 after 31 years on the Berkeley faculty, including appointments as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and university vice chancellor. Upon arrival at UMD, Mote hung a picture in his new office of himself falling helplessly down a ski slope, telemetry measurement devices strapped to his back, as a reminder that all great achievements require some risks. During the next 12 years, Mote worked to elevate the university’s reputation nationally and globally, while attracting record numbers of applicants, raising the academic profile of incoming students, and increasing research funding by 150 percent. He also created the accredited School of Public Health and the Department of Bioengineering, welcomed three Nobel laureates to the faculty, and lifted the university to national and international prominence. He also moved to make the university more accessible and affordable, and reduced the graduation achievement gap of underrepresented students.  

Mote’s appointment as president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) from 2013 to 2019 underscores his accomplishments and respect across the engineering community. “Among all the visionary scholars I know, Dr. Mote is unique because he is able not only to articulate his vision but to motivate people to act on this vision,” said University of Southern California (USC) Professor Stephen Chih-Yang Lu when Mote won the university’s 2019 Viterbi Lifetime Achievement Award. Mote invigorated the NAE’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program, which inspires undergraduates to pursue positive impacts on people and society globally through engineering. He has long been a champion of young engineers. As an award-winning teacher and a beloved and devoted mentor, Mote advised more than 58 Ph.D. students during his career. 

Mote has been recognized by numerous awards including the USC Viterbi Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Medal, the Humboldt Prize of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Senior Scientist Award of the Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific Research, and the Simon Ramo Founders Award of the National Academy of Engineering. He holds honorary membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society for Engineering Education, and the International Society for Skiing Safety. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Inventors, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the Academia Sinica, Taiwan. 

Though Mote is still brimming with questions, his engineering career has generated many answers with wide-ranging applications. Thanks to his analyses and inventive experiments, saws, power belts, skis, and more, are more efficient and safer than ever before. Perhaps equally important, his many mentees carry forward the spirit of his thinking, ensuring Dan Mote’s impact will continue to grow through generations of engineers to come.

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Information as of March 2020