Department of Engineering / News / In memory of Professor John 'Shôn' Ffowcs-Williams, 1935-2020

Department of Engineering

In memory of Professor John 'Shôn' Ffowcs-Williams, 1935-2020

In memory of Professor John 'Shôn' Ffowcs-Williams, 1935-2020

John Ffowcs-Williams portrait by Louise Riley-Smith

The Department announces with deep sadness the death of Emeritus Professor John 'Shôn' Ffowcs-Williams who has died aged 85. He came to Cambridge in 1972 as the Rank Professor of Engineering, and when he retired in 2002 was the longest-serving professor at the University of Cambridge. He was Head of the Department’s Aeronautics Division (‘Division A’) for nearly 30 years and served as Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1996 to 2002.

Shon was creative and inventive. He opened up new research fields and made major contributions in areas as diverse as aeroacoustics, anti-sound and active flow control and bioengineering. He was inspiring and fun as PhD supervisor, colleague and friend and will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling

Shôn made many contributions to the foundations and applications of Aeroacoustics, which have enabled dramatic reductions in the noise of aircraft and submarines. But his research was wider than that encompassing noise, vibration and unsteady flow. His work helped make anti-sound useful for noise control and for stabilising unstable aeromechanical systems. He even helped to develop an operation to quieten snoring. 

Shôn was born into a Welsh-speaking household and went to boarding school in North Yorkshire where he quickly had to learn English. He left school at 16 to take up an apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce in Derby, going to night school in the hope of applying to university. He won the Spitfire Mitchell Memorial scholarship to study engineering at Southampton University, where he was president of the Students' Union and took a BSc and a PhD. He did his PhD on how the speed of flight affected the volume of jet noise.

After spells at the National Physics Laboratory and at the US research and development company Bolt, Beranek and Newman he took up the Rolls-Royce chair in theoretical acoustics at Imperial College London. He was prominent in the Concorde programme, directing the research to control its take-off noise.  In 1972 Shôn moved to Cambridge as the first Rank Professor of Engineering in the field of Acoustics. 

Shôn’s research spanned from fundamentals to application. He and his students solved model problems with elegant mathematics which, together with carefully designed simple experiments, brought new physical understanding to engineering applications. With his student David Hawkings, he developed what has become known as the Ffowcs Williams-Hawkings equation, which describes how surfaces moving at high speed generate sound, and has become central to predicting and reducing helicopter noise. 

He was an early Cambridge entrepreneur and in 1979, with Dr Jack Lang, he founded the successful start-up company Topexpress Ltd, which carried out software development, research and consultancy. Topexpress was eventually sold to the VSEL Consortium plc, and Shôn subsequently joined the Board of VSEL as a non-executive director in 1987.  In 1996 he became Master of Emmanuel College.

He held fellowships of the Royal Academy of Engineering,  the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), the Royal Society of Arts, the Institute of Physics, the Acoustical Society of America and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) . He was a foreign member of the US National Academy of Engineering.  He was awarded the AIAA Aero-acoustics Medal (1977), the Institute of Acoustics Rayleigh Medal (1984), the RAeS Gold Medal (1990), and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Sir Frank Whittle Medal (2002).  

In 1959 he married Anne Mason, who survives him with two sons. A daughter predeceased him.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling said: "Shôn was creative and inventive. He opened up new research fields and made major contributions in areas as diverse as aeroacoustics, anti-sound and active flow control and bioengineering. He was inspiring and fun as PhD supervisor, colleague and friend and will be greatly missed by all who knew him."

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