ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

In Memoriam:
William A. Blackwell, former ECE department head

Photograph of portrait of William A. Blackwell

Photograph of a portrait of Bill Blackwell

March 14, 2010 — ECE mourns the death of former department head and professor William A. Blackwell, who died March 12, 2010.

Blackwell was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 17, 1920. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, from 1941-1945, in the Middle East, North African, European, and China-Burma-India Theaters.

After being discharged, he went to school with the help of the GI Bill. He earned his BSEE degree from Texas Tech University in 1949, his MSEE from the University of Illinois in 1952, and his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1958. He was a registered professional engineer in the state of Texas.

He worked for General Electric as a test engineer from 1949 to 1950 before returning to school for his master's degree, and served as a project engineer with General Dynamics from 1959 to 1961. He taught electrical engineering at Texas Tech, the University of Illinois, Michigan State, Southern Methodist University, and Oklahoma State University.

Blackwell joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1966 and served as head of the Electrical Engineering Department until 1981. During his tenure as department head, the foundations of today's department were developed. Whittemore Hall was built and the department moved into the first three floors in 1971. During this period, the department doubled in size, from 21 faculty members in 1966 to 39 in 1981.

The first externally funded research in the department began in 1967 with the formation of the Energy Research Group, supported by five electrical utility companies. Research funding grew at an exponential rate from $45,000 in 1966-1967 to $1.9 million in 1980-1981. Many research programs that continue today were started, including power electronics, microelectronics, and photovoltaics.

It was also a period of growth in education, with a number of new student laboratories built, including the radio lab, the microwave lab and the computer engineering lab. The computer option began in 1968 with the acquisition of the department's first computer, a PB440.

Blackwell's service extended beyond Virginia Tech. He chaired the national Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association in 1977-1978 and received an Outstanding Service Award from the association in 1994. He also started the Southeastern Symposium on System Theory, with phone calls to 20 electrical engineering department heads in the region. The first symposium, which focuses on system modeling, analysis, simulation, and control, was hosted at Virginia Tech in 1969.

He authored or co-authored a number of technical articles, plus three textbooks: Introductory Network Theory, with Leonard Grigsby; Electromechanical System Theory, with Herman Koenig; and Mathematical Modeling of Physical Networks.

Blackwell stepped down as head in 1981 to serve as a professor. He served as a visiting professor at the U.S. Military Academy in 1981-1982 and as resident director and provost of the Southeastern Center for Electrical Engineering Education during 1984-1985. He retired in 1988. He remained active with the department after retirement, editing a textbook, encouraging young faculty members, and co-writing a history of the department.

Blackwell earned many honors in the field. He was a lifetime Fellow of the IEEE, and a regional IEEE Outstanding Educator. The University of Illinois named him a Distinguished Alumnus in 1979 and Texas Tech named him a Distinguished Engineer in 1990.

Blackwell is survived by his wife of 60 years, Sherry LaRue Tibbets Blackwell, two children, David Blackwell and Rebecca Blackwell Kates, as well as two grandsons, William Scott Kates and Alan Whitfield Kates.