National Academy of Engineering, Volume 23
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PublisherNational Academies Press
ReleasedSeptember 3, 2021
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 23

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  • HERBERT H. WOODSON 1925–2018


    HERBERT HORACE WOODSON was born April 25, 1925, in Stamford, Texas. He graduated from Lubbock High School in 1942 and enlisted in the United States Navy, where he served as a radio operator in the Pacific during World War II. After being honorably discharged as an electronic technician’s mate first class in 1946, he enrolled at the Massachusetts­ Institute of Technology in 1947 and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering simultaneously in 1952. He spent 2 years at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory before returning to MIT in 1954 to get his PhD in electrical engineering, and joined the department faculty in 1956.

    At MIT he worked on magnetohydrodynamics and electromagnetic power generation, including novel approaches such as “The Application of Superconductors in the Field Windings of Large Synchronous Machines.”1 He also wrote the three volume book Electromechanical Dynamics with his graduate student James Melcher (Wiley, 1968); it is still used in MIT’s OpenCourseWare. He was the first director of MIT’s Electric Power Systems Laboratory, an interdepartmental lab in the

    The authors prepared this tribute as a special committee chaired by UT Cockrell School of Engineering Dean Emeritus Ben Streetman. School of Engineering, and the first Phillip Sporn Professor, a position named for the president of the American Gas and Electric Company.

    Herb came to the University of Texas at Austin as chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering (1971–81). Concurrently, he continued his development of research programs in the fields of energy and electric power, as founding director (1973–88) of the Center for Energy Studies (CES), associate director (1974–86) of the Fusion Research Center, associate director (1977–87) of the Center for Electromechanics (CEM), and director (1982–88) of the Center for Fusion Engineering (CFE).

    In the early 1970s he met with Bill Drummond, professor of physics and director of the Fusion Research Center, and suggested the use of a homopolar generator as a pulsed power supply for the toroidal magnets of a tokamak reactor. The original funding came from the Texas Atomic Energy Research Foundation (TAERF), a group of Texas electric utilities that funded fusion research. Grady Rylander Jr. (Department of Mechanical Engineering) became involved when they decided to build a small pulsed homopolar machine, and Bill Weldon joined the homopolar group as a graduate student in 1973. The growing team traveled together to raise funding for the effort, mainly from TAERF and the Energy Research and Development Administration (precursor to the Department of Energy). The funding doubled each year from the original $50,000 TAERF grant, and the Energy Storage Group became the Center for Electromechanics in 1977.

    It was Herb’s idea to form CEM, and he came up with the name. Grady was designated director because Herb was already CES director; Herb was associate director and Weldon technical director (he became director in 1985). Herb remained technically involved in the center even after he became dean. He also was CEM’s primary link with the UT Austin administration through Provost Gerry Fonken, and he and Grady were the ones who secured approval for the CEM/CES building, working with Fonken and Dean Earnest Gloyna.

    In 1982 Herb established CFE, which formed a triad with the two existing UT Austin fusion centers: the Institute for Fusion Studies (IFS), a theory group, and the Fusion Research Center (FRC), an experimental group. One major result was the IGNITEX concept, proposed by Marshall Rosenbluth (IFS director), Weldon (CFE), and Herb. This was a compact thermo­nuclear fusion device with the potential to produce and control ignited plasmas with relative simplicity and low cost. It used the tokamak toroidal geometry, still the leading contender for a fusion machine today. The most novel feature of their concept was a singleurn main toroidal field coil, powered by homopolar generators.2

    Herb also pioneered high-performance, practical, homopolar­ generators. The low impedance of the magnetic field coils and generator output were a perfect combination, providing sim­plicity and low cost. Funding was obtained from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Advanced Technology Program and other sources, and several prototype devices were built and tested.

    In 1988 Herb was appointed dean of the College of Engineering and his 8-year term was marked by growth and innovation. Outstanding faculty were hired and promoted, and new scholarships and fellowships were established for undergraduate and graduate students. The university’s Thrust 2000 program added more than 120 graduate student fellowships, with an original endowment of about $12–13 million. Recognizing that all students benefit from having a cadre of well-prepared and hard-working peers in every class, Herb used the endowed scholarships to recruit National Merit Scholars and other top students, particularly from Texas high schools. He convinced members of the college’s Engineering Advisory Board to host such students at their company facilities for an evening of food and learning about UT Austin’s 2

    In addition, new programs were established to enable students to succeed. In 1991 a group of female faculty and staff members proposed to Dean Woodson the establishment of a Women in Engineering Program (WEP). They were prepared with logical arguments for the program, but Herb surprised them by promptly agreeing (“Let’s do it!”) and committing to fund the program. WEP quickly became an important feature of the college’s outreach to women students, with many programs to help them succeed.

    Herb also played an important role in establishing a new Department of Biomedical Engineering. The College of Engineering had a biomedical engineering graduate program beginning in 1963, but as the program developed it became clear that a department was needed. In about 1996 Herb asked Ken Diller, Rebecca Richards-Kortum, and Grady Rylander III (Grady Jr.’s son) to write a white paper in support of this transition. That document ultimately evolved into a proposal to the Whitaker Foundation, which provided seed money for the new department. With the support of the Whitaker grant and the UT System, the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the undergraduate biomedical engineering program were established in 2001, and a new biomedical engineering building was built in 2008.

    Beyond his technical and leadership accomplishments, Herb authored multiple textbooks and filed numerous patents. He also represented the United States at the 1972 US-USSR Joint Commission on Technological and Scientific Cooperation.

    In recognition of his substantial and sustained efforts, in 1970 he was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers “for contributions to teaching and research in the areas of energy conversion, electric machinery, and power systems technology,” and he served a term as president of the IEEE Power and Energy Society (1978–79). He received IEEE’s Nikola Tesla Award (1984), “for contributions to power generation technology, particularly in superconducting generators and magnetohydrodynamic generators,” and Lamme Medal (1998), “for leadership in research and technology in the field of pulsed power and energy conversion systems.” He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975 and in 1990 received the Engineer of the Year Award from the National Society of Professional Engineers.

    Herb made great use of his retirement in 1996 to focus on his family, his love of golf, and continued mentoring relationships. He died at age 93 in Fort Worth on November 30, 2018. He was predeceased by Blanche (née Sears), his wife of 58 years, in 2009. He is survived by sons Bill (Sabrina), Bob (Susan Brack), and Brad; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.


    1  IEEE Transactions on Power Apparatus and Systems 90(2):620–27 (1971). 
    2 The concept is described in two early papers: Driga MD, Weldon WF, Woodson HH, Walls WA, Hsieh KT. 1987. Magnetic system for the IGNITEX fusion ignition experiment, 12th Symposium on Fusion Engineering, Monterey, CA, October 12–16; and Walls WA, Gully JH, Weldon WF, Woodson HH. 1991. Description of pulsed-power homopolar technologies for a fusion ignition experiment. Fusion Technology 19:1154–59.  academic programs. Herb and staff from the Student Affairs Office, department chairs, and faculty regaled the students with information and inspiration about the College of Engineering (now the Cockrell School of Engineering). The program was highly effective in recruiting top-quality students.

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