James H. Williams Jr. (1941- )

James H. Williams Jr., Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 2000
Photo by Edward McCluney (CC BY-SA 3.0)

James H. Williams is best known as an award–winning expert on applied mechanics and materials, specifically earthquake isolation research, shell theory, and nondestructive evaluation and composite materials, and a passionate advocate of African American representation in the academy. James Henry Williams, Jr. was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 4, 1941, the oldest of the two children of James H. Williams Sr., a skilled shipyard laborer, and Margaret Louise Williams, a restaurant owner. He was an unusually gifted student who confessed decades later that the main reason he presented straight A report cards to his mother was to watch her smile. First employed as an apprentice machinist at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, he climbed to senior design engineer while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). By 1968 Williams had completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree at MIT and in 1970 he finished his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cambridge University in England.

As a professor of engineering at MIT in the early 1970s Williams won research grants from the National Science Foundation. He was a consultant for numerous governmental and corporate projects involving aircraft, rockets, automobiles, hydroelectric power stations, and offshore oil platforms. But there were two events that focused national attention on him and raised his profile within and outside the academy. In 1991 Williams took a principled stand on the controversy surrounding MIT’s alleged “neo-colonial treatment of Black student and the lack of progress in recruiting black faculty.” He protested by fasting and positioning himself outside the president’s office. Ten years later when the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 that killed 260 in New York was blamed on pilot error, Williams, at the request of a group of pilots, investigated the tragedy, contradicted the conclusions of key government agencies, and eventually persuaded the agencies and the public at large that the crashed was actually caused by mechanical error, a reversal that had far reaching implications for airline safety.

Among the honors Williams has received are the Teetor Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Den Hartog Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Williams has published several hundred technical papers in scholarly journals including the Journal of Engineering Mechanics, Ultrasonics, and Materials Evaluation, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, International Journal of Fracture; and popular newspapers, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe) as well as other prominent magazines and newsletters. He has also been interviewed on network television and by numerous print journalists. Two of his four books are the 854-page Fundamentals of Applied Dynamics (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1996) and Wave Propagation—An Introduction to Engineering Analyses (The MIT Press, 2019).

Currently at MIT, Williams is the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Excellence, Charles F. Hopewell Faculty Fellow, Professor of Applied Mechanics in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and Professor of Writing and Humanistic Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.