Press Release

John Whinnery, University Professor Emeritus and distinguished innovator in electromagnetism, dies at 92

| 13 February 2009

John Roy Whinnery, former dean of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a distinguished innovator in the field of electromagnetism and communication electronics, died Sunday, Feb. 1, at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 92.

John WhinneryJohn Whinnery (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Whinnery's earliest work focused on understanding discontinuities in electromagnetic wave devices. His research led to innovations in microwave amplifiers such as triodes, used in World War II communication devices and radar receivers, and in traveling-wave tubes, including the backward-wave amplifier, which is still used in radar and satellite communications.

He later became interested in the emerging field of lasers and laser applications in communications. He and his students produced advances in ultra-short optical pulses, which can be used to study fast processes in materials and chemical reactions. He was recognized as one of the country's top experts on the fundamentals of quantum electronics.

In addition to his research, Whinnery is widely credited with helping to bring the study of applied electromagnetic theory to a broader audience with the pioneering textbook, "Fields and Waves in Modern Radio," which he co-authored with Simon Ramo in 1944.

"Engineers tend to focus more on how things play out in everyday life rather than on the abstract realm of theoretical physics," said Theodore Van Duzer, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of electrical engineering and co-author with Whinnery of later editions of the text, which took on the new title of "Fields and Waves in Communications Electronics." "John's book made electromagnetic theory understandable and accessible, which is why modern editions of it still dominate college courses today, 65 years later."

In 1994, friends and former students surprised Whinnery at a celebratory event honoring the book's 50th anniversary by endowing a faculty chair in his name. That position is now held by Whinnery's former Ph.D. student, Connie Chang-Hasnain, the John R. Whinnery Chair in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.

"As one of his former graduate students, I have had the great fortune of observing and learning from a true scholar," said Chang-Hasnain.

During Whinnery's four-decade academic career at UC Berkeley, he was given the rare honor of being named University Professor, a special designation as a "professor-at-large" for all University of California campuses that is considered the UC system's most prestigious recognition of scholarship. Only 36 faculty members - 14 of them from UC Berkeley - have been given that title since it was first awarded in 1960.

In 1992, Whinnery's research contributions, excellence as an educator and record of service also earned him the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor bestowed by the president.

Friends and colleagues point out that, despite his achievements, Whinnery remained remarkably unassuming. "He was modesty personified," said Charles Birdsall, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a colleague of Whinnery's. "In addition to being an extremely good instructor, he was congenial and just fun to work with."

Whinnery was born in Read, Colo., on July 26, 1916, and moved with his family at the age of 10 to Modesto, Calif. Whinnery's father continued farming in California, but maintained an avid interest in electrical and mechanical systems, said Whinnery's daughter, Cathy Whinnery. "It is likely that my father's interest in engineering began early in his childhood while watching his father take apart cars," she said. "My grandfather also bought and operated a light plant to generate electricity for a small town in Colorado, and that probably played an influential role for my father, too."

By the time Whinnery graduated from high school in 1933, the Great Depression had already begun and obtaining money to attend college was a struggle. In the introduction to an oral history of Whinnery's life, Donald Pederson, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who died in 2005 and a close friend of Whinnery's, wrote that Whinnery could only afford to attend a local junior college, but that he greatly impressed his instructors there.

Those instructors, wrote Pederson, "knew (Whinnery) would flourish at Berkeley, but funding remained beyond John's reach. Unbeknownst to John, several of his teachers took up a collection and financed a scholarship to send him back to Cal."

After transferring to UC Berkeley in 1935, Whinnery proved those instructors right, graduating in 1937 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and earning the University Medal, which is awarded to the top graduating senior at UC Berkeley and is the campus's highest student honor.

Whinnery worked the next nine years at General Electric Corp. in Schenectady, New York, where he met Ramo, his "Fields and Waves" textbook co-author. In 1946, Whinnery returned to UC Berkeley as a lecturer while working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, received in 1948. Upon earning his doctorate, he was immediately appointed an associate professor of electrical engineering, advancing to full professor in 1952.

Whinnery held a number of leadership positions while at UC Berkeley, including director of the Electronics Research Laboratory from 1952 to 1956, chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1956 to 1959, and dean of the College of Engineering from 1959 to 1963.

"John drove the post-war transformation of UC Berkeley's electrical engineering department from the handbook era into a modern science-based program," said David Hodges, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and former dean of the College of Engineering. "He led in recruiting many outstanding faculty members and students, and fostered a culture of excellence and cooperation that characterizes the department to this day."

During leaves from the university, Whinnery held positions as head of the Microwave Tube Research Division of the Hughes Aircraft Company from 1951 to 1952, participated in research in quantum electronics at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey from 1963 to 1964, and held visiting professorships at UC Santa Cruz and Stanford University. In 1959, he held a Guggenheim Fellowship at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).

Whinnery earned a national reputation in matters of engineering education and played a key role in the creation of the Commission on Engineering Education.

In addition to the National Medal of Science, the many other awards and honors Whinnery won over his lifetime include the Founder's Award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Lamme Medal of the American Society for Engineering Education, the Berkeley Citation and the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award. He also earned the uncommon distinction of being elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and he served on NASA's Science and Technology Committee on Manned Space Flight for the Apollo Space Program.

In 2007, 20 years after Whinnery retired from UC Berkeley, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences dedicated a room at the campus's Cory Hall to Whinnery.

Outside of his professional life, Whinnery was known for his love of writing poetry and children's stories, cultivating fine wines, and hiking in the mountains. His friends also noted that he was an enthusiastic, but "challenged," golfer.

Whinnery was preceded in death in 2007 by Patricia, his wife of 63 years. He is survived by three daughters, Carol Whinnery of Torrance, Calif.; Dr. Cathy Whinnery of Berkeley, Calif.; and Barbara Whinnery of Santa Monica, Calif.; and three granddaughters.

A fund has been established in Whinnery's memory to support fellowships for graduate students in electrical engineering. Checks made out to the UC Regents may be sent to the John Whinnery Endowment Fund, c/o Kate Riley, UC Berkeley, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, 231 Cory Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-1770.

A campus celebration of Whinnery's life is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 15, at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club. For additional details or to attend the event, please e-mail Chris Colbert at