Thomas B. Cox
Department of Metallurgical Engineering
Class of 1966, BS; Class of 1968, MS
Thomas B. Cox was destined to work in the field of metallurgy. He grew up in steel country, 40 miles west of Pittsburgh in eastern Ohio. His father worked as a foreman in a steel mill for part of his career before entering the banking industry as a trust officer. “I was surrounded by steel mills that lit up the sky at night,” Mr. Cox says, adding that the best jobs in town were held by the engineers who kept those mills running.
Mr. Cox came to Virginia Tech in 1961, funded by a co-op program with National Steel Corp., the only way he could afford college. Virginia Tech operated in academic quarters at the time, and he alternated college with working at the mills at home. His freshman and senior years, he went full-year as a student. During his junior year, he was able to spend three quarters in Manchester, England. Virginia Tech didn’t have a study abroad program at the time, so he constructed a course syllabus with department leaders here to study overseas. The trip to England was by sea, on a small ship with 1,000 students. The 10- day trek was hit hard by a storm, which tossed the ship about. “It was scary,” Mr. Cox recalls. “We ate on the floor with the ship’s furniture tied to the walls.” The return trip home was by a four-engine propeller plane, with a stopover in Iceland. He asks, “Anyone else remember those days?”
Once back in the states, Mr. Cox finished his bachelor’s degree in 1966, and launched directly into a master’s degree at Tech in the same field, finishing in 1968. At the David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center, in Annapolis, he helped develop new compositions of matter and processing for high strength steels, including HY-180, and new titanium alloys. The work involved modifying the compositions and processing of alloys to determine the effects on their physical properties in order to create stronger and tougher hull materials for ships and submarines. During his 1968-1976 career at Annapolis, Mr. Cox earned his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1973.
From 1976 to 1979, he worked with the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., managing alloy research programs for coal gasification technologies. His career then took him west to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, near San Francisco, where he managed a plutonium technology program and facility, including plutonium alloy research, and the design and fabrication of hardware for weapons tests.
In 1981, he went to work for Amax Corp.’s Climax Molybdenum research and development division in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, he developed composition of matter and processing of high-strength steels for pressure vessels and oil industry uses, subsequently moving to Golden, Colorado, to manage all alloy research for Amax.
In 1989, Mr. Cox joined the General Electric corporate research center in Niskayuna, New York. There he managed metallurgical research and development in support of GE’s businesses before being promoted to technical director of the giant’s Global Research Center. He was tasked with overseeing the technical work of 1,400 scientists with a $200 million research budget. Mr. Cox was instrumental in initiating GE’s partnering with international technologists, starting in 1994 with institutes and universities in the former Soviet Union just a couple of years after the super power collapsed. He played a leading role in the establishment of GE research and engineering laboratories in Bangalore, India, and Shanghai, China, in the late 1990s before retiring at the end of 2001.
Charles “Chip” Blankenship, a fellow Hokie alumnus who is now vice president and general manager of GE’s commercial engines operation, accompanied Mr. Cox on a number of those pioneering trips to Russia. “We did work together on acquiring some Russian technology and that included a few trips to the Ural Mountains,” Mr. Blankenship says. “We ate things we didn’t recognize and we experienced new and interesting cultures and things together, and had our fill of vodka.” Some of the food they ate could rival haggis as daring, and local drinks also could raise eyebrows. They drank fermented horse milk that was carbonated, and another beverage that would solidify similar to cold beef gravy if not drank quickly.
Mr. Cox has shown “leadership in innovative research and development approaches, including partnering with [the] former Soviet Union institutes to commercialize fundamental metallurgical process technologies such as high-gradient casting,” says Mr. Blankenship. The two first met when Mr. Blankenship interviewed for a position at the GE Research Center in 1992. Mr. Cox was the hiring manager. “I’ll never forget the question he asked,” Mr. Blankenship says. “It is one of the best interview questions I ever heard.” Mr. Cox had asked the recent doctoral graduate to pick one accomplishment made during his Ph.D. studies that made a difference. “For a graduate student, you always want to list 19 or 20 things you think are important. And to try and boil it down to one thing that makes a difference was a real challenge,” Mr. Blankenship says. For the record, Mr. Blankenship can’t recall his answer. The two remain friends, bonding over Virginia Tech memories, football scuttlebutt and family news. “He challenged each person whether they were a technician, staff scientist, or manager to keep getting better and to excel,” Mr. Blankenship says. “I learned a lot from him as a leader.”
Mr. Cox holds five U.S. patents for composition of matter and the processing of metallic alloys. He also has authored 20 papers for referred technical journals and was elected to membership in Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi.
In June 2008, in celebration of their 40th wedding anniversary, Mr. Cox and his wife, Cheryl, moved from Clifton Park, New York, to Boulder, Colorado, to be closer to their daughter and to the Rocky Mountains which they both love. He carried with him a lifelong passion of singing classical and sacred music from the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society in New York to the Boulder Chorale. His love of theater is that of an audience member, not a performer, as he served for many years on the board of directors of the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, New York. He is an avid lap swimmer and he has served on the board of the YMCA.
The scenic views from his new home remind Mr. Cox of his days at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “The scenery is fabulous and the hiking is great,” he says. Without being asked, he promptly and graciously sends a stranger a photo of the mountains surrounding his home.
Class of: 1966, 1968
Year Inducted into Academy: 2009