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Sir William R. Hawthorne, former professor of mechanical engineering, dies at 98

Pioneer of jet-engine technology fostered trans-Atlantic, Cambridge-to-Cambridge collaboration.
Sir William R. Hawthorne, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s who was a pioneer of jet engine technology, died of pneumonia in Cambridge, England, on Friday, Sept. 16. He was 98.

Deemed a “sparkling” personality by students and colleagues alike, Hawthorne, who was knighted in 1970 by Queen Elizabeth II, made numerous contributions in advancing jet-engine and gas-turbine technology. Throughout his career, Hawthorne, who was born in Benton, England, made a point of forging ties between his two alma maters, the University of Cambridge and MIT, a collaboration that still exists today.

Hawthorne graduated from Cambridge in 1934 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and spent a year as an apprentice at the manufacturing firm Babcock and Wilcox Ltd., before heading across the Atlantic to MIT.

It was here, in “the other Cambridge,” where Hawthorne received an ScD in chemical engineering and worked up a thesis, “The Mixing of Gas and Air in Flames,” in which he studied burning jets of combustible gas. While most researchers assumed gas would burn completely as long as there was enough free oxygen, Hawthorne found that in fast-burning fires, the flames contained eddies of unburned, gaseous fuel along with free oxygen.

Hawthorne’s work at MIT proved useful after graduation, as he was called back to England during World War II. There, as he liked to say, Hawthorne “was loaned” to Sir Frank Whittle, known as the father of jet propulsion. Hawthorne and Whittle worked on the country’s development of jet aircraft; Hawthorne drew from his thesis work at MIT to design a fuel mixture for fast combustion. Together, he and Whittle engineered the combustion chambers for the first British jet engine ever to fly.


After the war, Hawthorne jumped back across the Atlantic — something he would continue to do throughout his career — returning to MIT first as an associate professor, then as the George Westinghouse Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

From 1946 to 1951, Hawthorne devoted his research to gas turbines. Specifically, he identified an effect called secondary flow, a phenomenon in gas turbines in which air flows in a different direction from the primary flow, particularly at bends or turns in the system. Hawthorne’s observations ultimately helped engineers increase the efficiency of airflow within gas turbines.

In 1951, Hawthorne accepted a position at Cambridge as a professor of applied thermodynamics, though his ties with MIT remained. In 1955, MIT made Hawthorne the first Hunsacker Professor of Aeronautics, a visiting professorship established in honor of Jerome Hunsacker, then an MIT professor of aeronautics.

In subsequent years, Hawthorne made frequent trips to MIT as a visiting Institute Professor and as a visitor to the MIT Gas Turbine Laboratory, where he had a major role in guiding the work of a number of students, faculty and research staff.

In the late 1950s, spurred by the oil shortage following the Suez Crisis, Hawthorne turned his attention to designing an alternative fuel-transportation system. Instead of conventional, hulking oil tankers, Hawthorne proposed collapsible barges — long, sausage-shaped tubes that could be filled with fuel and dragged by a small boat. He coined the vessels “dracones,” Greek for “dragon” or “sea serpent.” Today, dracone barges are used to transport fuel to locations that lack deepwater docks, as well as to clean up oil spills.

In recognition of his many contributions, Hawthorne was elected a member of the Royal Society and a foreign associate of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

Hawthorne’s strong ties to MIT extended beyond academia. He married Barbara Runkle, the granddaughter of John Daniel Runkle, who served as MIT’s second president from 1870 to 1878; his grandson, Charles Amick, recently graduated from the Institute.

Keeping the connection

Ed Greitzer, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, remembers one of Hawthorne’s particularly pivotal visits to MIT, when Greitzer was himself a graduate student at Harvard University. At the time, Greitzer was deciding whether to pursue a career in industry. A conversation with Hawthorne, then a consultant to Pratt & Whitney, convinced him to join the company.

A number of years later, further interactions with Hawthorne led Greitzer to rejoin academia, first for a year at Cambridge and then at MIT, where he continued to seek counsel from Hawthorne, who urged him to reach out and work with partners at Cambridge. “He said that MIT and Cambridge working together offered opportunities and advantages for both, and that we should keep the tradition going,” Greitzer says. “And so we did, from the 1970s to the present.”

A high point of that effort came in 2006, when researchers from MIT and Cambridge reported their work on the Silent Aircraft Initiative, a project to design an airplane that would be virtually noiseless outside the perimeter of an urban airport.

“Sir William was an example of what being a professional is all about,” Greitzer adds. “He was really rigorous in going about technical work.”

Into thin air

The same could be said for Hawthorne’s approach to one of his favorite pastimes: the art of conjuring. A longtime fan of magic, Hawthorne always had a trick up his sleeve; Greitzer remembers many occasions when Hawthorne would perform such illusions with flourish and style. In fact, Hawthorne was elected president of the Pentacle Club at Cambridge, one of the oldest magician societies in the world, holding the post from 1970 to 1990. After years of practice, he finally achieved a long-sought illusion: that of sawing a woman in half.

In 1993, Greitzer and his colleagues held an 80th birthday party for Hawthorne at MIT, where the guest of honor humored his friends with several magic tricks.  “I remember sitting in the first row and watching very carefully to see how he did it,” Greitzer recalls. “And I just couldn’t. He did it that well.”

A funeral will take place at 2 p.m. on Sept. 29 in Cambridge, England, at The Chapel at Churchill College, with a reception following at Trinity College.

A memorial service will take place at the MIT Chapel, 48 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, on Saturday, March 24, 2012, at 2 p.m. A reception will follow at the MIT Student Center, next door to the Chapel, in Room W20-307. RSVP to Robin Courchesne-Sato at, 617 253-2481.

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