Robert Willis (engineer)

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Robert Willis

The Reverend Robert Willis (27 February 1800 – 28 February 1875) was an English academic. He was the first Cambridge professor to win widespread recognition as a mechanical engineer, and first set the scientific study of vowels on a respectable foundation. He is now best remembered for his extensive architectural writings, including a four-volume treatise on the architecture of the University of Cambridge. He was described by Pevsner as "the greatest English architectural historian of the 19th century".[1]


Robert Willis at about the time he lectured at the School of Mines

Willis was born in London on 27 February 1800. His father was Dr Robert Darling Willis, physician to King George III.[2][3] He was a grandson of Francis Willis.[4] His paternal uncle was Rear Admiral Richard Willis.

His health was delicate, which prevented him from going to school, and he was privately tutored.[5] He showed talent in music, and as a draughtsman, and when he was 19 took out a patent on an improved pedal harp. In 1821 he studied with the Rev. Kidd of King's Lynn, and in that year published An attempt to Analyze the Automaton Chess Player, in which he showed how a human player could be concealed within the chest housing the supposed machinery. In 1822 he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from which he received his B.A. in 1826.[2] In 1827 he was ordained deacon and priest.[5][4][6] In 1832, he mariied Mary Anne, daughter of Charles Humfrey of Cambridge.[4]

In 1828 and 1829 he published two early papers on the mechanics of human speech, namely "On vowel sounds, and on reed-organ pipes" and "On the Mechanism of the Larynx". In 1830 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1835 published his first paper on architecture, Remarks on the architecture of the middle ages, especially of Italy. From 1837–1875 he served as Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge, and from 1853 onwards he was a lecturer in applied mechanics at the government school of mines.[2] In 1837 he read a paper On the teeth of wheels, and in the following year published this in more detail, proposing the Odontagraph, (also called "Odontograph") a device to allow a crafstman to determine the proper shape of teeth on wheels of different diameters. This was widely used for many years.[7][8] In 1841 he published his Principles of Mechanism, and in 1851 A System of Apparatus for the Use of Lecturers and Experimenters in Mechanical Philosophy.

Principles of Mechanism, Willis's major engineering work, provided a mathematical analysis of the "relations of motions". It constrasted with earlier approaches in that it was not concerned with utility - a crank is defined as a machine for converting reciprocating to circular motion, or vice versa, whether it is used for raising water, grinding flour or sawing timber. He classified machines in two ways, firstly in terms of the type of contact: rolling, sliding, wrapping, linking and reduplicating; and second on whether the relationship between the connected motions was fixed or variable.[9] His examples were not confined to man-made machines. He showed that the joints of a crab's claw worked in the same way as Hooke's universal joint.[10][11]:410–422 Willis's classification was influential, being adopted by other writers, including William Whewell[12][11]:424 By 1870, thirteen works on mechanism had used Willis's scheme of classification.[11]:433

Willis's earliest published work on architecture was the Remarks on the architecture of the middle ages, especially of Italy based on material collected during the 1832-3 honeymoon trip, and published in 1835.[13]:20 His historical and descriptive work on architecture included works on individual buildings (Hereford Cathedral, 1842; Sextry Barn, Ely, 1843; Canterbury Cathedral, 1845; Winchester Cathedral, 1846; Chichester Cathedral,1861; Worcester Cathedral, 1863; Sherborne Minster, 1865; Glastonbury Abbey, 1866) as well as analyses of vaulting (1842) and the flamboyant style (1842). As an aid to his descriptive work he invented the Cymagraph to copy the shapes of architectural mouldings (1842).[4]

King's Walk Cemetery Chapel, Wisbech

In 1839, the Cambridge Camden Society was formed by undergraduate students at Cambridge University to promote "the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques", and Willis became a Vice-President. While Willis was happy to agree that mediaeval gothic was the appropriate form for new churches, he objected to the increasing pre-occupation of the society with pre-reformation rituals, and the insistence on high-church forms such as long chancels, from which the laity were excluded, and stone altars. In 1841 he and others signed a remonstrance against the desire "to convert the Society into an engine of polemical theology" and resigned his position.[14]:25[15]:16[16] Also in 1841, Willis designed his only complete building, a cemetery chapel in Wisbech. This was an early example of historically accurate gothic in England, and in this respect Willis was in agreement with the prescriptions of the Society.[15]:16-17

Willis was an early member of the British Archaeological Association, and gave his paper on Canterbury Cathedral at their first meeting in 1844.[17] Soon after this, the Association split, leading to the formation of the Archaeological Institute (later Royal). Willis transferred to the new Institute, giving his paper on Winchester Cathedral at their first meetng the following year.[18][4] In 1849 a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the use of iron in railway structures. Willis was one of the commissioners, and carried out experiments to determine the effects of moving loads on iron structures.[2][19] He was one of the jurors in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and his lecture On machines and tools for working in metal, wood and other materials was published in the following year. In 1855 he served as vice president of the Paris Exposition, and in 1862 received the Royal Gold Medal in architecture.[4]

In 1870, his wife Mary Ann died. After completing work on the second edition of Principles of Mechanism in that year, Willis wrote no more.[20] In 1872, he sold his library, which consisted of 1458 items. Pevsner (1970) lists some the books which included 26 editions of Vitruvius, works on Palmyra and on Chinese buildings, as well as those on German, French, Italian and British architecture[15]:24-26. He died of bronchitis in 1875 at Cambridge, where his papers are archived at the Cambridge University Library.[21] He willed his manuscript on the Architectural History of the University of Cambridge to his nephew John Willis Clark who completed it (published 1886).[4][22]

Willis's theory of vowel production assumed a close correspondence between vowel production and the production of musical notes using an organ: the lung acted as a bellows, the vocal folds acted as the reed, and the mouth cavity acted as the organ pipe. Different vowels corresponded to mouth cavities(/organ pipes) of different lengths, which were independent of the properties or vibrations of the vocal folds(/reed). Willis's 1830 paper "On vowel sounds, and on reed-organ pipes" is usually given as the reference for this theory, and is often contrasted with Wheatstone's "harmonic" theory of vowel production.[23][24] Russell devotes two chapters to the discussion of these two theories in his 1928 book on The Vowel,[25] and Willis and Wheatstone figure prominently in the discussion of vowel theories given by Tsutomu Chiba and Masato Kajiyama.[26]

Willis is now best-known for his architectural work. Pevsner, in a 1959 paper correcting an omission in Willis' account of Winchester, writes: "His work was done a hundred and more years ago, and yet, whichever building or group of buildings he decided to tackle, his results have remained valid to this day. Nowhere has he been superseded to the extent that a scholar now could afford to neglect his writings".[27] More recently, Huerta writes that Willis' work on vaults "is still today the best exposition of the topic, a work to be studied with care by anyone wishing to know in depth how the cross-vaults of the Midle Ages were traced and built".[28] de Andrés and Álvarez (2015) have emphasised Willis' contribution to elucidating the flamboyant style, at a time when most historians were focussing either on the origins of the gothic style or on the central period of Chartres and Bourges.[29] A comprehensive evaluation of Willis' work on architectural history can be found in Buchanan (1994).[13]

Confusion with Robert Willis (1799–1878)[edit]

The work of Willis on acoustics is often mistakenly attributed to Robert Willis (1799–1878). This is for instance the case in Beyer's Sounds of Our Times (1998). Sometimes, it is the other way round, and Thierry Mandoul's Entre raison et utopie: l'Histoire de l'architecture d'Auguste Choisy (2008) gives the dates (1799–1878) for our Willis who worked in architecture.


  1. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1970). The buildings of England: Cambridgeshire (Second ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140710108.
  2. ^ a b c d "Obituary. The Rev. Professor Robert Willis, 1800-1875" (PDF). Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. 41: 206–210. 1875.
  3. ^ "Dr Robert Darling Willis". The Willis family of Lincolnshire. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Clark, John Willis (1899). "Willis, Robert (1800-1875)" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 57. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  5. ^ a b Venn, John (1897). Biographical history of Gonville and Caius college, 1349-1897 : containing a list of all known members of the college from the foundation to the present time : with biographical notes. Volume 2. Cambridge: University press. p. 182.
  6. ^ "Willis, Robert (WLS821R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  7. ^ Grant, George B. (1887). "A new odontograph". Journal of the Franklin Institute. 123: 108–115.
  8. ^ Adamson, Daniel (1916). "Spur-Gearing". Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 90: 353–450. doi:10.1243/PIME_PROC_1916_090_017_02.
  9. ^ Willis (1841). Preface, pages i-xix
  10. ^ Willis (1841), page 182
  11. ^ a b c Marsden, Ben (2004). "The Progeny of These Two "Fellows'": Robert Willis, William Whewell and the Sciences of Mechanism, Mechanics and Machinery in Early Victorian Britain". The British Journal for the History of Science. 37: 401–434. JSTOR 4028641.
  12. ^ William Whewell (1841). The Mechanics of Engineering: Intended for Use in Universities and in Colleges of Engineers. Printed at the University Press for J.W. Parker.
  13. ^ a b Buchanan, Alexandrina (1994). Robert Willis and the rise of architectural history (PhD). UCL (University College London) Department of Art History.
  14. ^ "Report of the twenty-third meeting of the Cambridge Camden Society on December 6th 1841". The Ecclesiologist. 1 (2): 22–29. 1841.
  15. ^ a b c Nikolaus, Pevsner (1970). Robert Willis. Northampton, Mass: Smith College. ISSN 0081-0193.
  16. ^ Rose, Elliot (1966). "The Stone Table in the Round Church and the Crisis of the Cambridge Camden Society". Victorian Studies. 10 (2): 119–144. JSTOR 3835186.
  17. ^ "First annual meeting of the British Archaeological Association, Canterbury, September 1844". Archaeological Journal. 1: 276. 1845.
  18. ^ "Proceedings at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Winchester, September 1845". Archaeological Journal. 2: 306. 1846.
  19. ^ Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire Into the Application of Iron to Railway Structures. William Clowes and sons. 1849.
  20. ^ Marsden, Ben. "Willis, Robert (1800-1875), engineer and architectural historian". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29584. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  21. ^ "Robert Willis: Papers". Cambridge University Library Repository. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  22. ^ Buchanan, Alexandrina (2012). "Building a Monument: Willis, Clark and "The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge"". Architectural History. 55: 145–172. JSTOR 43489718.
  23. ^ R. Linggard (10 January 1985). Electronic Synthesis of Speech. CUP Archive. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-521-24469-5.
  24. ^ Robert T. Beyer (1999). Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-387-98435-3.
  25. ^ Russell, G. Oscar (1928). The Vowel. Its Physiological Mechanism as Shown by X-Ray. Ohio State University Press.
  26. ^ Chiba, T.; Kajiyama, M. (1942). The Vowel: Its Nature and Structure. Tokyo: Tokyo-Kaiseikan.
  27. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1959). "A Note on the East End of Winchester Cathedral". Archaeological Journal. 116: 133–135. doi:10.1080/00665983.1959.10854145.
  28. ^ Huerta, Santiago (2016). "Willis's sources on gothic vault construction". In Buchanan, Alexandrina (ed.). Robert Willis : science, technology and architecture in the nineteenth century : proceedings of the International Symposium held in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge UK, 16th-17th September 2016. pp. 297–320. ISBN 9788494600005.
  29. ^ de Andrés, Elena Pliego; Álvarez, Alberto Sanjurjo (2015). "Robert Willis' Contribution to Understanding the Gothic Flamboyant Style". Proceedings of the First Conference of the Construction History Society: 343.


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