Department of Engineering / News / Professor Ken Wallace 1944–2018

Department of Engineering

Professor Ken Wallace 1944–2018

Professor Ken Wallace 1944–2018

The Department announces with deep sadness the death of Emeritus Professor of Engineering Design Kenneth Wallace.

It is so typical of Ken that he wrote his own obituary to make it easier for all of us after his passing. The words below were written by Ken before he died on 3rd March 2018.

Ken Wallace was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne towards the end of World War II, on 21 March 1944, to Joan and Gordon Wallace.  He was lucky to be born at all as his father was an Observer in the Fleet Air Arm and narrowly missed death on numerous occasions: on one escaping from a shot down Bristol Bisley in Tunisia with his hands on fire; and on another escaping from an upturned Albacore when it ditched in the sea after an engine failure.

Ken only emerged academically when he moved to Brentwood School in 1958. Brentwood provided the motivation and opportunity for him to develop his academic abilities in mathematics and physics, and sporting abilities in cross-country running and swimming.  It was also at Brentwood that he joined the RAF cadets and was introduced to flying, first in gliders and subsequently in power aircraft.  He was always proud that he was awarded his Pilot’s Licence on 30 August 1961, aged just 17 and well before he passed his driving test! Interestingly, he was taught to fly in Tiger Moths at Marshall’s airfield in Cambridge in the summer of 1961 – little was he to know what an important role Cambridge was to play later in his life!

After leaving school in 1962, he moved to Derby as a University Apprentice with Rolls-Royce Aero Engines.  The university section of the 5-year apprenticeship was to be at UMIST in Manchester, with the intention to start in September 1963. However, the opportunity arose to spend a year working for Flugzeug-Union-Süd in Munich and Rolls-Royce agreed to release him for a year.  This was a very formative year for Ken and becoming fluent in German proved to be extremely valuable many years later when he moved to Cambridge. He greatly enjoyed his time at Manchester and was lucky to be accepted into the University Air Squadron, which meant he could continue to pursue his passion for flying, this time in Chipmunk aircraft.

During his first summer vacation in 1965, after completing the required six weeks of training on the Rolls-Royce test-beds in Derby, he returned to stay with his parents in Warsash on the river Hamble.  There he met, and fell instantly in love with, Annette Fothergill, who had just returned from Swansea University, where she had been studying for her Art Teachers Diploma (ATD). Their relationship developed rapidly and on Ken’s 22nd birthday in 1966, he asked her to marry him. They were married on Saturday, 1 April 1967, with Ken’s final examinations at Manchester just eight weeks away!  He graduated with a BSc in Mechanical Engineering, First Class Honours, on 12 July 1967, with Annette attending the ceremony.

In September 1967, he returned to the Aero-Engine Division of Rolls-Royce to complete his University Apprenticeship, winning the University Apprentice of the Year Prize in 1968.  He then worked in the Stress Office, the Preliminary Design Office and the RB 211 Development Office, before leaving Rolls-Royce in 1971.

Ken had a desire to teach in higher education, but this proved challenging with no PhD, no teaching qualifications and no teaching experience.  While looking for a teaching job, he helped his father set up a small engineering company, Task Power & Control, and also set up a sailing business, SeaSpell, with his brother.

In August 1971 he was lucky to be appointed to a temporary lectureship at Oxford Polytechnic (Now Oxford Brookes University), replacing a member of staff on sabbatical leave.  He taught engineering design and automobile engineering to a wide range of students.  At the end of the year, his lectureship was made permanent and he continued to teach at Oxford Polytechnic until 1977, during which time his two daughters, Harriet (1973) and Elizabeth (1975) were born.

In 1977 he saw an advertisement for a Lectureship in Engineering Design at the University of Cambridge and thought how amazing that would be; initially assuming he had no chance.  On reading the details, he realised there was a chance, albeit small.  He posted the application on his 33rd birthday, 21 March 1977. His appointment at Cambridge started on 1 January 1978 and he was initially tasked in updating the design teaching in the Department with the aim of bringing it up to world-class standards.  He was elected a Fellow of Selwyn College on the same date.  

During his time as a Fellow, he held many of the usual posts: Director of Studies, Supervisor (which he enjoyed greatly), Tutor, and sat on numerous committees. Teaching was always his main love and he made many contributions to teaching in the Engineering Department, including: establishing the 3rd year Major Project for the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (1979); introducing the 1st year Conceptual Design Project (1980); creating the 3rd year Mechanical Design Course (1986); and leading the team that developed the 2nd year Integrated Design Project (1993).  

During the early 1990s, he was responsible for the Engineering Department’s involvement with the student International Design Contest (IDC), which initially involved teams MIT, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Darmstat Technical University and Cambridge.  The IDC was held in Cambridge in 1995. He was recognised both nationally and internationally for his teaching, receiving a number of awards including: an inaugural Pilkington Teaching Prize in 1994; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award in 2001; and the Sir Misha Black Award for Innovation in Design Education in 2002. 

He moved into the fledgling field of design research in the early 1980s, starting by translating and editing the classic German text: Engineering Design by Pahl & Beitz.  The first English edition was published in 1984 and to his considerable surprise it became the most frequently referenced text in the field of engineering design – a position it holds to this day.  Its timely translation underpinned design teaching and research at Cambridge and at many universities around the world. In the 1980s, Ken initiated a new pattern of design research, namely large observational studies of design practice in industry, along with the development of a Design Research Methodology.  

By the end of the decade, the Engineering Department’s reputation in design research was sufficiently established to apply, along with Professors David Newland and Michael Ashby, to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for a grant to set up an Engineering Design Centre (EDC) in the Engineering Department.  A ten-year rolling grant was awarded and the EDC was established on 1 January 1991, with Ken as its first Director. In 1997, he handed over the Directorship of the EDC to Professor John Clarkson and under John’s leadership the EDC has grown steadily and currently has around 65 research staff and students.

In 1997, Ken was appointed Deputy Head of the Engineering Department.  During this period, he was responsible for leading the Department through its Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA).  As the Engineering Department represents around 10% of the University, this was one of the largest assessments ever undertaken. Fifteen assessors spent three days in the Department.  The TQA was successful and the Department scored 23/24 – a pleasing achievement for such a large Department.

In 1999, Ken was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer and this prompted a rebalancing of his work responsibilities.  The opportunity arose to set up a new research group within the EDC and in 1998 he became a Co-Director of the BAE SYSTEMS/Rolls-Royce University Technology Partnership (UTP) for Design, overseeing the research into Knowledge Management undertaken at Cambridge.  One of the most successful outcomes of the UTP’s research was the delivery to Rolls-Royce of the design rationale capture software, called DRed.  This is now used throughout Rolls-Royce to capture the design decision-making process and to communicate between designers working in different companies and countries.  For this software, Ken and Rob Bracewell were jointly awarded the Rolls-Royce Research and Technology Director's Award for Creativity in 2005.

In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Engineering Design and, in 2001, Professor of Engineering Design. In 1991, he was elected a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers; in 1994 a Fellow of the Smallpeice Trust; in 1994 a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering Designers; in 1999 a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering; and in 2007 an Honorary Fellow of the Design Society. In 2011, he received an Honorary Doctorate (HonDEng) from Brunel University.

He retired from the University on 31st December 2007, 30 years after taking up his appointment.  Since his retirement, he kept himself fit by jogging, swimming, mountain biking and windsurfing.  He had four grandchildren, Ben, Orla, William and Alfred and he has greatly enjoyed many activities and projects with them.  On April fool’s Day 2017, he celebrated his Golden Wedding Anniversary with Annette and his family. In September 2017,

Ken was diagnosed with the rare and aggressive cancer – Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer.  He received intensive radiotherapy, the best possible care from Addenbrooke’s hospital and had great determination to beat it.

Professor John Clarkson was a friend and colleague of Ken for many years and he contributed the following words.

Ken's work in the EDC transformed engineering design research, bringing a new level of rigour and relevance to the topic.  Yet he will also be remembered for the way in which he worked with his postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, with great understanding and encouragement, developing the person as well as the subject.  Many will remember his eye for detail, with changes suggested in such a way they were always welcomed.  Ken remained actively in touch with all of his researchers, continuing to be interested in their personal and professional progress for many years after their departure from the EDC. 

At Ken’s Festschrift in 2005, held in celebration of his 60th birthday, the event began with everyone introducing himself or herself and providing testimony as to why they had felt compelled to attend. What emerged, from the attendees from five continents, was a diverse and fascinating picture of Ken’s contribution to the field of engineering design through his scholarship in research, excellence in teaching, unassuming leadership and, perhaps most importantly, his capacity for mentoring and guiding young researchers. Ken clearly left an indelible mark on all those he taught, supervised and worked with over many years.

Ken also gave so much to the international design research community, not only through his own efforts, but also through encouraging the efforts of others. It was a characteristic of Ken that he was always far more interested in building a thriving community than in furthering his own ambitions and it is the way in which he gave, with wisdom delivered unselfishly and with such modest good humour, that ensures that so many people held him in such high regard.  He made an exceptional contribution to the community accompanied by his unrelenting passion for engineering design.

He will be greatly missed by all who knew him, and we extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends. 


The Wallace family announce, with great sadness, the death of Ken Wallace who died on Saturday 3 March 2018 after a short battle with Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer.

His funeral will be held at the West Chapel, Cambridge City Crematorium,
CB3 0JJ on Wednesday 28 March at 2.15 pm.  All are welcome.

Light refreshments will be available afterwards - details will be in the service sheet.

There will be family flowers only but donations, in lieu of flowers, can be made to either Addenbrookes Charitable Trust Fund or Arthur Rank Hospice Charity by contacting our Funeral Director, Peasgood and Skeates, 617 Newmarket Road, Cambridge, CB5 8PA.  Tel: 01223 415255.  
Donations can also be made via 'Ken's in Memory profile' which can be found at: www.peasgoodandskeates.co.uk

A memorial event for Ken will be held at Selwyn College, Cambridge at a later date.  Details will be sent in due course.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image use please see separate credits above.