In Memoriam: Walter Jack Cunningham, Former Chairman of Yale Electrical Engineering

W. Jack Cunningham, 86, professor emeritus and the former chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Yale University, died at his home in Hamden, Conn., on January 7, 2004, after an illness of several months.

A specialist in the areas of systems theory, nonlinear analysis, computation and acoustics, he taught at Yale from 1946 to 1988. He authored numerous papers and a textbook, “Introduction to Nonlinear Analysis,” which was used worldwide and translated into several languages. He was particularly devoted to the teaching of engineering and science, and became Yale engineering’s institutional memory. Upon retiring, he wrote a history “Engineering at Yale - 1932-1982,” published in 1992.

Cunningham was born on August 21, 1917, in Comanche, Texas, received his A.B. and A.M. degrees from the University of Texas and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Harvard. During World War II he helped train military officers in radar theory.

The start of his career coincided with the great changes and advances in electronics and technology of the World War II era-radar, sonar and the atomic bomb. His teaching career encompassed the resulting major change in engineering education from an emphasis on practical construction, measurement and industrial administration to a growing emphasis on research and technical applications of electronics, atomic physics and automatic control.

Professor Cunningham worked primarily on the mathematical analysis of engineering and taught generations of students about ordinary and partial differential, and nonlinear differential equations.

“He preserved the connection between theory and reality which is the essence of engineering,” said Peter Schultheiss, emeritus professor of electrical engineering, who began his career at Yale in the same month as Cunningham. “He was famous among students as an outstanding teacher. Even when his lectures dealt with abstract-sounding topics in differential equations he prepared demonstrations illustrating the results.”

Cunningham was chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1961 to 1963, when the School of Engineering was abolished and the departments combined into one Department of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), in which he became associate chairman. He served on many university boards and committees including the science advisory board, undergraduate admissions committee, graduate school degree committee in the sciences and the health advisory board. He facilitated the later transition of the EAS into separate departments of Chemical, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering.

“He had the longest standing and most intimate knowledge of the speckled history of engineering at this university of anyone I have ever met,” said Paul Fleury, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Frederick W. Beineke Professor of Engineering and Applied Physics. “His service and deep commitment to Yale Engineering covered more than four decades, during which he was an inspiring teacher, a pioneering researcher and scholar, a true statesman and an effective spokesman for his colleagues and programs here. His ‘History of Yale Engineering’ epitomized his professional, thorough and understated approach to all things. As a result he was one of the most highly respected and revered members of our faculty in all of its long history. It could truly be said of Jack Cunningham that he was a ‘class act’-except that there was nothing of an act about Jack. He was the real thing. He will be long and sorely missed.”

Professor Cunningham served and inspired his community as a member of the Connecticut Commission on Higher Education, and a judge of Connecticut high school science fairs. He was a member or chair of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, American Scientist and Sigma Xi publications from 1955 to 1990 and was a member of the Acoustical Society of America, the American Society for Engineering Education and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Later in life, as a volunteer, he gave talks to young people at the Eli Whitney Museum.

His last gift to the Yale community was a self-guided tour of great people of science and engineering in the Grove Street Cemetery. Although illness prevented him from taping them, the scripts he prepared are the guide

He was a trustee of the Church of the Redeemer in New Haven. After moving to Whitney Center in 1993, he served as an officer on the Residents’ Council for eight years and as president from 1995 through 1997. His wife of 59 years, Barbara Lynch Cunningham, and sons Lawrence of New Haven and John of New York City survive him.

A memorial service was held January 16 in the Church of the Redeemer. Memorial gifts may be made to the Remembrance Fund of Whitney Center, 200 Leeder Hill Drive, Hamden, CT 06517 or to the Church of the Redeemer, 185 Cold Spring Street, New Haven, CT 06511. For further information, contact Patricia Kakalow at Yale University.

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