Dr. Otto J.M. Smith
Aug. 6, 1917 - May 10, 2009
Argus Observer May 28, 2009 10:14 AM PDT Berkeley, Calif.
Otto J. M. Smith died on Sunday, May 10, 2009, from injuries sustained in an accidental fall on a poorly engineered sidewalk in front of the recreation center in El Cerrito, Calif. The accident occurred on Thursday, May 7, 2009. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis Sterling Smith, and their four children and spouses, Candace and Clinton Shock; Otto and Kristin Smith; Sterling and Joan Smith; and Stanford and Dianne Smith.
Otto was 91 at the time of his death, a professor emeritus in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley and an active inventor working in the field of energy production and efficiency. He was deeply concerned about global warming and devoted much of his later life to developing technologies and working for policies that would help save the world from man-made disaster.
Otto J.M. Smith was born Aug. 6, 1917, in Urbana, Ill. In 1923, he moved with his family to Stillwater, Okla., where his father was head of the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering at Oklahoma A & M. Otto did graduate work and received his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University where he met his future wife and lifelong companion, Phyllis Sterling. They were married for 67 years at the time of his death. At Stanford, he was in the habit of catching lizards and presenting them to his wife-to-be who would wear them under the collar of her blouse for a day and then let them go in the evening.
Although the recipient of prestigious awards, Otto is remembered by his family as a family man who was proud of the accomplishments of his children, of his 12 grandchildren and of the growing number of great-grandchildren. The family remembers sing-a-longs in the car and his many unusual pets including snakes, lizards, two different kinds of bats and an albino female opossum named Pogoette (after the Walt Kelley ’possum, Pogo). He took Pogoette walking on a leash and dryly informed anyone who asked that she was a tetra-ploid rat. He set the broken leg of a praying mantis with a toothpick. Otto continually engaged anyone, anywhere in conversation, asking them about their interests; a call from a telemarketer could extend to half an hour as he asked about their families, how they liked the job or what their future plans were. Even if they lacked a common language, when abroad he would communicate with people. In Yugoslavia, he persuaded the waiter to show him the cooking pots of food in the kitchen so he could point out his choices.
Otto gave numerous presentations to groups of all ages on diverse topics such as “Bats in the Belfry,” “Engineering Ethics,” a camping trip through Russia in 1960 and living in Brazil during the 1950s. An orange at one side of a field and the head of a pin at the other side demonstrated the relative size and distance of the sun and the earth to boy scouts. Slides of paddy fields enlivened talks on Asia. His inclusion of his family in his adventures introduced his children and grandchildren to geography, diversity and international relations. He was a pacifist, a World Federalist, a believer in the rule of law, an atheist, a humanist and active in political causes. He participated with his students in strikes and protests against the Vietnam war and actively supported his wife in her extensive volunteer work with the Berkeley Free Church, the Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless and other social causes.
Dr. Smith had a continual thirst for knowledge and a practical ability to turn theory into working projects. He was an educator, inventor and author in the fields of engineering and electronics. Dr. Smith is probably best known for the invention of the “Smith predictor,” a method of handling dead time in feedback control systems. An early invention was a square wave generator circuit produced by Hewlett Packard and in general use since the expiration of the patent. Since 1976, all of his patents have been for devices to generate or conserve energy, including designs for solar electric power plants, wind generators and high efficiency motors. He was granted at least 30 U.S. patents as well as foreign patents. At the time of his death, he was pursuing two more patents which had been applied for but had not yet received a final office action.