An engineering life

The Sol Lutwak Papers in the Poly Archives reveal the nuts and bolts of a career as an aerospace engineer in decades past

Ellen Lutwak knew the basic facts of her father’s life: she knew, for example, that he had been born in 1928, making him a child of the Great Depression and that his father, a carpenter, had died when he was just 10. She knew that he had always had a head for science and that despite the hardships of his childhood, he had attended the highly competitive Brooklyn Technical High School before entering what was then known as Brooklyn Poly (later renamed NYU Tandon), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, magna cum laude, in 1950.

old photo in sepia tones of LutwakIn short, she knew him as a beloved family man devoted to her, her brother, and her mother, Annette, whom he had met while in California and married in 1951. She watched as he set off for work each day and returned home in the evenings from jobs at such companies as McCulloch Motors, Hughes Tool, and Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (TRW), but had little idea of what daily life at any of those places entailed.

When Lutwak died on January 7, 2020, it fell to Ellen, a writer and public relations professional, to help her mother go through his effects. What greeted her in the family garage was box upon box of meticulously organized papers that upon close inspection revealed an exhaustively documented life and career. She gradually discovered a trove of fascinating facts: her father had been on the Poly wrestling and tennis teams, had served for a time as an assistant in the Structures Lab, and had been editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Polytechnic Reporter. While at Hughes he helped engineer heavy-lift helicopters, and he had been one of the first employees hired to staff TRW’s Space Technology Laboratory, where he worked on satellites for NASA’s space shuttle and Apollo programs and developed an early structural computer program.

Ellen, married to a journalist who works as an archivist, immediately understood the value of what she had unearthed: an impossible-to-replicate firsthand glimpse of what it was like to be a poor but brilliant aspiring STEM professional in the post-World War II era and a working aerospace engineer at the height of the Space Race.

The Bern Dibner Library at 5 MetroTech is now home to six linear feet of material donated by Ellen with the help of her son, Benjamin, an artist who fortuitously now lives in Brooklyn, not far from where his grandfather lived and studied. The papers — from class notes and old exams to technical manuals and professional reports — cover his time at Brooklyn Poly and graduate studies at UCLA, his wide-ranging career, and his contributions to NASA, among other things. (Ellen will also be donating other materials related to her childhood home in Westchester, a suburb in Los Angeles, to a local museum.)

“People don't always think about donating their personal or professional papers to archives, but the Lutwak Papers are an excellent example of how we all have one-of-a-kind stories to share,” said Lindsay Anderberg, the interdisciplinary science and technology librarian who serves as the Poly archivist at Dibner Library. “Humanizing collections, like Sol's, build connections between our current engineering students and the alumni who came before them. We appreciate Ellen allowing us to share such deeply meaningful artifacts with the NYU Tandon community and hope others will follow her lead.”