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Stanford Report, July 23, 2003

From Durand to Hoff: The making of a pioneering Aero/Astro Department


The history of aeronautics at Stanford is almost as old as the university itself. In 1904, just a year after the Wright Brothers' powered flight, William F. Durand was recruited from Cornell to chair Stanford's Mechanical Engineering Department. A former naval officer and marine engineer, Durand pursued hydraulics engineering at Stanford, where he consulted on the design of dams including Hoover, Grand Coulee and Shasta and helped develop the water supply system that would wet the parched West.

On Jan. 15, 1951, William F. Durand (left) and Elliot Reid packed propellers for later display at the Smithsonian Institution. The propellers, whose designs were tested in wind tunnels by Durand and E.P. Lesley in 1918, improved performance by controlling pitch during flight. Photo: News Service Archives

Aeronautics developments prior to World War I compelled Durand to establish Stanford's first aeronautics course in 1915. The course was the second (after MIT) to be offered by an American university.

1915 was also the year the government created NASA's forerunner, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Durand became its first civilian chair and helped plan what would become a famous laboratory at Langley Field, Va. That was also the year Durand and Everett Parker "Bill" Lesley built the first of Stanford's three wind tunnels to test propeller designs for the National Aeronautical Commission. Fifty of the 125 propellers they tested are now on display in the Engineering Library in the Terman building.

In 1917 Durand served as scientific attaché to the American Embassy in Paris, where he helped organize the postwar Inter-allied Inventions Committee. During this assignment he met Harry Guggenheim, a young Naval lieutenant and aviation enthusiast. This friendship would eventually have a profound effect on the development of aeronautics research and education in the United States.

Durand retired from academic life in 1924 only to begin one of the most important chapters in his career. In 1925 he became a member of President Coolidge's Aircraft Board, which fostered passage of the basic Civil Aeronautics Act by Congress. In 1926 he became a trustee of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. (Much of the enthusiasm with which Harry Guggenheim prevailed on his father to establish this fund came from his association with Durand.) This fund was used to establish and support new aeronautics departments throughout the country. At Stanford, this money enabled appointment of two key faculty: Elliot Grey Reid, an aerodynamics specialist, and Alfred Salem Niles, an expert on aircraft structures.

In 1929 Durand began work as editor of the six-volume work Aerodynamic Theory, completed in 1936 under the sponsorship of the Guggenheim fund. In 1933 he resigned from NACA, and in 1935 he became chairman of a committee on airships that would recommend future design practices after the loss of airships Akron off the New Jersey coast and Macon off the California coast. A skilled diplomat and eloquent speaker, Durand was much in demand for national and international committees. He was elected president of the World Power Congress and at the opening meeting in Washington in 1936 addressed the delegates in English, then French, German and Spanish -- all languages he had mastered.

By 1939, 42 Stanford aeronautics graduates were active in the airframe and airline industry, in the military and in government research. After World War II, aeronautics activity slumped at Stanford just as it did in industry. The Guggenheim fund ran out of money in 1939. By the late 1950s, with the retirements of Reid and Niles approaching and with the number of students down to a trickle of four or five a year, Dean of Engineering Frederick Terman seriously considered discontinuing the aeronautics division of Mechanical Engineering.

When graduates heard this they offered to raise money from the aircraft industry to save the program. A committee led by John Buckwalter ('24, Engr. '32) of Douglas Aircraft and Philip Coleman ('34) of Lockheed asked each major western aircraft company to contribute $5,000 per year for five years to reinvigorate aeronautics at Stanford and get it back to a position where it could attract students and research support. Douglas, Boeing, Convair, Northrop, North American, Hughes and Lockheed all chipped in.

Durand died in 1958 at the age of 99. His life ended at a time of resurgence for aeronautics and astronautics. Sputnik, the first satellite, had launched the Space Age in 1957, and soon afterward the importance of high-speed flight and space flight would be widely recognized. A Centennial Conference in honor of Durand in August 1959 pointed to the emergence of a department with a substantial student body and research contracts and gave Terman the evidence he needed to determine that the new department could stand on its own. In September 1959, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics was formally established as a separate, graduate-only department with Nicholas Hoff as its first chairman.

The building that houses most of that department now bears Durand's name. A memorial there reads: "His first professional assignment in 1880 was on the USS Tennessee, a full rigged wooden ship with auxiliary steam power. His last, 1942-46 was as chairman of the National Aeronautical Commission for the development of jet propulsion for aircraft."