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Sir W. R. Hawthorne, Professor of Mechanical Engg.

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 hailed from 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 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 against 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 both an Institute Professor and visiting professor, consulting with researchers and serving on government committees on issues of aircraft propulsion, fuels and guided missiles.

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.

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 the time, Greitzer was deciding between a career in industry versus academia. A conversation with Hawthorne convinced him that academia — and MIT — was the way to go.

After becoming a professor at MIT, Greitzer 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 is a good idea, and you guys should keep the tradition going,” Greitzer says. “And so we did.”

Greitzer says the culmination of that effort came in 2006, when he and researchers from Cambridge began the Silent Aircraft Initiative, a project to design an airplane that would be virtually noiseless outside the perimeter of an urban airport.

“He was an example of what being a professional is all about,” Greitzer adds. “He was just 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, and Greitzer remembers many occasions when Hawthorne would pull out a party trick. In fact, Hawthorne was eventually elected president of the Pentacle Club, one of the oldest magician societies in the world, holding the post from 1970 to 1990.

After years of practice, Hawthorne 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 a few card 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. Memorial services in both England and the United States are currently being planned.

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