Sir Alistair MacFarlane died on 2 November 2021. He was Professor of Engineering at Cambridge from 1974-89 and a Fellow of Selwyn College, then Vice-Master in 1980.
Alistair had a life-long fascination with feedback systems. With his research at UMIST and Cambridge he was regarded as a world-leading figure in computer-aided graphical design methods for multi-variable feedback systems. He was also a visionary leader, founding the Information Engineering Division and establishing computer aided teaching facilities in the undergraduate programme.Professor Jan Maciejowski and Professor Keith Glover
Alistair was born on the 9th of May 1931 in the Prestonfield district of Edinburgh.
Inspired by his father’s love of model making Alistair designed an entry for a national competition that, like some real-life prototypes crashed spectacularly on its maiden flight. As an avid reader of model magazines he became aware that the major activities in this, as in so many other fields, took place well south of the border. On a visit as a schoolboy to an aunt in Croydon, he was able to go up to London to visit the national model engineering exhibition, which made a deep impression on him and no doubt made him start to think about becoming an engineer.
The release of information at the end of the war in newspaper articles, cinema newsreels and government HMSO publications about wartime technical developments fired Alistair’s imagination and confirmed his intention to be an engineer. He became fascinated by Radar, and decided that is what he wanted to be involved in. He decided to study electrical engineering at Glasgow University on a sandwich degree course. The industrial experience was with Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester, where he first encountered feedback control systems and where he worked after graduation until 1959.
He joined the staff of the Electrical Engineering Department of Queen Mary College at the University of London in 1959, and spent six very fruitful years there. His motivation in joining a university department was to be able to do research. He registered as a part-time doctoral student. He had no clear idea of what area to work in, other than a deep interest in feedback theory and its applications.
He went to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in 1966, initially as a Reader. The Science Research Council created 3 'Centres of Excellence' in Control Engineering and UMIST was one of the three, the other two being Imperial College and Cambridge. Alistair was appointed a Professor in the newly-created Control Systems Centre.
He was elected in 1974 to a newly established Chair of Engineering at Cambridge, and became Head of the newly-formed Control and Management Systems Division. (The ‘Management Systems’ element later became the Judge Business School, and the ‘Control’ element merged with other groups to form the current Information Engineering Division.) At both UMIST and Cambridge, Alistair’s mission was to extend the frequency domain techniques for the analysis and design of feedback amplifiers and servomechanisms, which had been pioneered principally by Bode and Nyquist in the 1930's, to more general and complex control systems. The particular challenge was multivariable systems, in which several interacting quantities need to be controlled simultaneously. He was convinced that existing graphical methods had to be generalised if such systems were to be tackled routinely by engineers, and he was an early proponent of computer-aided design to support such methods as they were developed. He also had a deep interest in complex-variable theory, and spent much of his career looking for suitable generalisations, convinced that these would lead to graphical methods.
He developed a worldwide reputation for this work, and had a large number of research students, many of whom became well-known Professors of Control Engineering.
After nearly fourteen years in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge, he felt that he had answered the basic questions about how classical frequency-response methods could be generalised.
"Alistair had a life-long fascination with feedback systems. With his research at UMIST and Cambridge he was regarded as a world-leading figure in computer-aided graphical design methods for multi-variable feedback systems. He was also a visionary leader, founding the Information Engineering Division and establishing computer aided teaching facilities in the undergraduate programme. Alistair was also a very supportive and encouraging PhD supervisor, who liked to see students going 'off-piste' in pursuit of their own ideas, although he was rigorous in criticising such ventures, without being discouraging." Professor Jan Maciejowski and Professor Keith Glover.
In 1989, he took the post of Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. After thirty-five years of working on feedback systems, it was time to move on to other things – and back to the city of his birth.
In early 1996 Alistair retired to pursue scholarship and research with a Leverhulme Foundation Senior Research Fellowship. His research then took a philosophical bent, with an increasing interest in notions of information, complexity and knowledge, and how these related to the future of machines.
At the same time he was appointed Academic Adviser to the proposed University of the Highlands and Islands, and in 2000 was appointed its Chief Executive, later to be elected its first Rector.
In 2011 Alistair was knighted ‘for services to higher education’.
Alistair was married to Nora, and after her death to Anwen. He is survived by his son (with Nora) Robert, who is a senior Civil Servant in the Cabinet Office.
With thanks to Professor Jan Maciejowski, Professor Keith Glover and Robert MacFarlane.