Robert Willis (engineer)

The Reverend Robert Willis (27 February 1800 – 28 February 1875) was an English academic. He was the first Cambridge professor to win widespread recognition as a mechanical engineer, and first set the scientific study of vowels on a respectable foundation, but is now best remembered for his extensive architectural writings, including a 4-volume treatise on the architecture of the University of Cambridge.


Willis was born in London, a grandson of Francis Willis, studied in 1822–1826 at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from which he received his B.A., and in 1827 was ordained deacon and priest.[1] In 1828 and 1829 he published two early papers on the mechanics of human speech, namely On vowel sounds, and on reed-organ pipes and On the Mechanism of the Larynx. In 1830 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, from 1837–1875 he served as Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge, and from 1853 onwards a lecturer in applied mechanics at the government school of mines. In 1843 he became a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, in 1855 served as vice president of the Paris Exposition, and in 1862 received the Royal Gold Medal in architecture. He died of bronchitis at Cambridge where his papers are archived at the Cambridge University Library.

Even before attending college, Willis invented an improvement to the harp pedal and in 1821 published An attempt to Analyze the Automaton Chess Player. He later invented the odontograph (1837) which became widely used, and the cymograph (1841) which did not. In 1841 he published his Principles of Mechanism, and in 1851 A System of Apparatus for the Use of Lecturers and Experimenters in Mechanical Philosophy, as well as many works on medieval architecture and the mechanical construction of English cathedrals, notable for his incisive decompositions of these structures' functional and decorative aspects. He willed his manuscript on the Architectural History of the University of Cambridge to his nephew John Willis Clark who completed it.

Willis's theory of vowel production assumed a close correspondence between vowel production and the production of musical notes using an organ: the lung acted as a bellows, the vocal folds acted as the reed, and the mouth cavity acted as the organ pipe. Different vowels corresponded to mouth cavities(/organ pipes) of different lengths, which were independent of the properties or vibrations of the vocal folds(/reed). Willis's 1830 paper On vowel sounds, and on reed-organ pipes is usually given as the reference for this theory, and is often contrasted with Wheatstone's "harmonic" theory of vowel production. Russell devotes two chapters to the discussion of these two theories in his 1928 book on The Vowel, and Willis and Wheatstone figure prominently in the discussion of vowel theories given by Tsutomu Chiba and Masato Kajiyama in their 1941 book of the same name (Tokyo: Tokyo-Kaiseikan).

Confusion with Robert Willis (1799–1878)

The work of Willis on acoustics is often mistakenly attributed to Robert Willis (1799–1878). This is for instance the case in Beyer's "Sounds of Our Times" (1998). Sometimes, it is the other way round, and Thierry Mandoul's "Entre raison et utopie: l'Histoire de l'architecture d'Auguste Choisy" (2008) gives the dates (1799–1878) for our Willis who worked in architecture.


  1. "Willis, Robert (WLS821R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.


  • Lee, Sidney, ed. (1899). "Willis, Robert (1800-1875)" . Dictionary of National Biography. 57. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Robert Willis : An attempt to analyse the automaton chess player, of Mr. de Kempelen, 1821 link
  • Bernard Roth: Robert Willis, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, pp. 403–404
  • Robert Willis: Principles of mechanism, 1870 link (contains after p. 463 a list of Willis' publications up to 1870 and these include the works on the chess player, and the articles on vowel sounds and the larynx)
  • R. Linggard: Electronic Synthesis of Speech, 1985
  • Minsoo Kang: Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, 2011
  • Tom Sandage: The Turk, 2002 (on Kempelen)
  • Robert T. Beyer : Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics, 1998
  • Moon, F. C. (2003). "Robert Willis and Franz Reuleaux: Pioneers in the theory of machines". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 57 (2): 209. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2003.0207.
  • University of Cambridge article
  • Robert Willis: Papers
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