Ernst Frankel, shipping expert and professor emeritus of ocean engineering, dies at 95

Ernst G. Frankel MME ’60, SM ‘60, professor emeritus of ocean engineering who served on MIT’s faculty for 36 years, passed away on Nov. 18 at the age of 95. Frankel, who was also a former professor of management at the Sloan School of Management, was a leading expert in shipping, shipbuilding, and port management.

Born in 1923 in Beuthen, Germany, Frankel served in the Royal Navy during World War II. He also served in the Israeli navy in 1948. After the war, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in marine engineering at London University. He worked for eight years as chief engineer of Zim Navigation Company in Israel, before moving to America and enrolling in MIT to study ocean engineering.

He graduated MIT in 1960 with a master’s of science in ocean engineering and a master’s of marine mechanical engineering. In his graduate thesis, he examined the effects of surge, pitch, and heave on semisubmerged displacement vessels in regular waves. After graduating, he joined the faculty of the then-named Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. He remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1995.

Throughout his career, Frankel authored 21 books and over 700 academic papers. In 1971, he was named head of the Interdepartmental Commodity Transportation and Economic Development Laboratory, which he also helped establish.

In addition to his work at MIT, Frankel acted as an advisor to a number of governments, international organizations, and shipping companies. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Neptune Orient Lines, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, as well as an advisor to the Panama Canal Authority. He also served as a port, shipping, and aviation advisor to the World Bank, a senior advisor on ports to the secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, and a member of the U.N.-sponsored World Maritime University’s Visiting Committee.

Frankel received a number of accolades throughout his career including a Gold Medal from the government of Great Britain in 1956. He was also a member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and the Transportation Science Section Council.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Frankel expanded his expertise beyond ocean engineering and naval architecture, setting his sights on business and economics. He earned a master’s of business administration in operations management and a doctor of business administration in systems management from Boston University. He also received a PhD in transport economics from the University of Wales in 1985. 

This foundation in economics and business management led to a dual appointment in the Sloan School of Management. In addition to acting as professor of ocean engineering, in the early 1990s Frankel was named a professor of management at Sloan. 

After his retirement in 1995, Frankel remained active in both teaching and research. When Elon Musk announced the Hyperloop concept in 2013, Frankel received some unexpected media attention for research he conducted two decades prior. In the early 1990s, Frankel led a team that designed a vacuum tube which could possibly enable travel between Boston and New York City in 40 minutes — a concept similar to what Musk has been hoping to achieve.

In an interview with the BBC in 2014, Frankel said, “The advantage of a vacuum tube is that you can achieve high speeds. … We built a half-mile long tube at the playing fields of MIT, evacuated it, and then shot things through it in order to measure what sort of velocities we could obtain.”

Funeral services were held in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Nov. 20.