David Gordon Wilson

David Gordon Wilson is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He received his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, U.K. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship (MIT and Harvard University), and the Reclamation Industries International Prize. Among other activities, he has also designed the centrifugal pump used in the world's first artificial heart, and co-designed a recumbent bicycle that broke the world bicycle speed record.

Growing up in Warwickshire, England, David Gordon Wilson developed a passion for bicycling that never wavered. Eventually, he parlayed it into a distinguished career as an engineering professor at MIT and a leading expert on human-powered transport. He is well known for his book, Bicycling Science, and is credited with starting the modern recumbent bicycle movement in the United States. But Wilson’s career as a scientist is distinguished not just by his significant engineering contributions to his field but by the breadth of his engagement with real-world problems. He’s still applying his expertise in creative and inspiring ways today.

Engineering change

Wilson entered school for engineering as a result of a combination of his early interest in tinkering with his bicycle and encouragement from his father, an engineer, who believed that scientists and engineers were vital to the war effort. Even from the start, the idea of real-world implications of scientific work was an important feature of his understanding of working in the sciences. At that time, though, Wilson says he was most interested in riding motorcycles and designing motorcycle steam engines. On his first day at work at an internship in electrical engineering, Wilson’s boss found him sketching steam-engines rather than working on the task he had been assigned. Thinking he was going to be fired immediately, Wilson was pleasantly surprised when he was assigned to work on air turbines instead.

Wilson enjoyed this work so much he switched his studies from electrical to mechanical engineering and after receiving his degree spent a significant portion of his career dedicated to turbine engineering and research; in fact, he wound up winning a research fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Following the fellowship, Wilson worked as a gas turbine engineer at Boeing then returned to the U.K. He left that work to spend two years as a teacher in Nigeria, a choice he describes as “a wonderful and very educational experience.”

After he had returned to the U.K, he was invited to become the technical director of a Massachusetts company that wanted to start a branch in London specializing in turbomachinery and heat transfer. He was subsequently promoted to the headquarters in the U.S. in the same role.  Four years later Wilson was offered an associate professorship in mechanical engineering at MIT.

Wilson’s involvement into politics grew when he was appointed to a legislative commission of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority where he tried to write legislation that would increase efficiency and result in increased use of public transport. His policies never made it through but he continues to advocate for them today. “Unfortunately government is dominated by lawyers and the people who become lawyers are often scared stiff about science and engineering,” Wilson says. “But science and engineering play a huge role in our lives today so it doesn’t make sense to have people who don’t understand anything about it exclusively deciding our policies. That’s why I think scientists and engineers ought to have a much stronger presence in public affairs.”

Still enthralled by politics and enthusiastic about clean elections, Wilson became the chair of the board of the Massachusetts branch of Common Cause, an organization promoting accountability in government. He also co-founded MASH, Massachusetts Action on Smoking and Health, a group that worked for nonsmokers rights. And he received a research grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to explore innovative ways to sort trash for recycling.

In a career that has ranged from academia and industry to policy and legislature, Wilson has used his technical background and engineering expertise to engage in an impressive variety of ways to try to improve the world around him.

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