William F. Durand



"His first professional assignment in 1880 was on the USS Tennessee, a full rigged wooden ship with auxiliary steam power. His last, 1942-46 was as chairman of the National Aeronautical Commission for the development of jet propulsion for aircraft."

Quote from memorial to Durand at Stanford

William F. Durand was once known as the "Dean of American Engineering" for an incredibly long life of achievement in the field of aeronautical engineering that started when he was a member of the first graduating class of Birmingham High School (now Derby High School) in 1877. Dr. Durand grew up on his father's and grandfather's farm. At 17, in 1876, he placed tenth in a group of eighty boys taking competitive entrance examinations for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He went on to graduate second in his class. He later got a Ph. D. from Lafayette College. He went on to teach at Michigan State,  Cornell and Stanford (where the aeronautical engineering building is named after him!).

Stanford recruited him from Cornell in 1904 to become chair of their Mechanical Engineering Derpartment. While at Stanford, he headed up Stanford's Commission of Engineers following the 1906 earthquake and helped rebuild the college. He established Stanford's first aeronautics course in 1915, and it was only the second to be offered at an American University. The Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering building is named for him. He served as a professor and head of the Mechanical Engineering Department until he retired in 1924.

Though he was retired from formal academic life, he went on to enhance his distinction as one of the country's leading engineers. In 1925 he became a member of President Coolidge's Aircraft Board, which fostered passage of the basic Civil Aeronautics Act by Congress.

Although his early research was in marine engineering, Durand was best known for his contributions to the science of aeronautics, specifically the development of the first variable pitch propeller. He was an original member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, serving from 1915 to 1933, and again during World War II, when he helped organize the work being done on jet propulsion.

In 1926 he became a trustee of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics.This fund was used to establish and support new aeronautics departments throughout the country.

In 1929 Durand began work as editor of the six-volume work Aerodynamic Theory, completed in 1936 under the sponsorship of the Guggenheim fund. In 1933 he resigned from NACA, and in 1935 he became chairman of a committee on airships that would recommend future design practices after the loss of airships Akron off the New Jersey coast and Macon off the California coast. A skilled diplomat and eloquent speaker, Durand was much in demand for national and international committees. He was elected president of the World Power Congress and at the opening meeting in Washington in 1936 addressed the delegates in English, then French, German and Spanish -- all languages he had mastered.

Durand was professionally active well into his 80s. After his retirement from Stanford, he continued his research on airplane propellers, making use of Stanford's wind tunnel. He served several terms as president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Sigma Xi. He was a member of a federal advisory board concerned with the Colorado River and Hoover Dam; and he worked with the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics

During an illustrious career his awards included the Guggenheim Medal for research in aerodynamic theory,  the 1936 John Fritz Medal, often cited as the highest award in the engineering field,  for achievement in aviation, the Franklin Institute Medal, J. J. Carty Medal and the Presidential Medal for Merit. He was also president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He worked on the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams as well as being a charter member and first civilian chair of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA.

In 1924-25, he was president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and this organization induced him to write his autobiography in 1953. It was published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, and is entitled "Adventures in the Navy, in Education, Science, Engineering, and in War -- A Life Story by W.F. Durand."

Durand was married on October 23, 1883, to Miss Charlotte Kneen, of Shelton. He lived to the ripe old age of 99, and last visited Derby in 1955.

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