Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Kenerson, William H.

William Herbert Kenerson (1873-1966), was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on December 9, 1873. He completed two years of high school and then through his own efforts prepared himself for college. In 1896 he was awarded the first M.E. degree from Brown. He earned a master of arts degree from Harvard in 1906. He began teaching at Brown immediately after graduation in a room on the top floor of University Hall. In an attic room above the drawing room, he began his research on metals with the help of a microscope borrowed from the biological laboratory. It was through his efforts that the Engineering Department, not always considered appropriate for a liberal arts college, survived and prospered at Brown. When the separate Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering and the course in electrical engineering were merged in a single division of engineering in 1916, Kenerson was named chairman, which he remained for twenty-five years. After retirement in 1941 he became executive secretary of the Division of Engineering and Industrial Research of the National Research Council, and was later appointed executive secretary of the Council and also of the National Academy of Sciences, the first to hold both positions at the same time.

In the Engineering Division Kenerson kept a stone statuette of Ganesha, the Indian elephant god, the “Lord of Obstacles.” He had found the statuette in the rubbish and rescued it to keep as a reminder to students that engineers are expected to overcome obstacles. In teaching thermodynamics, he told his students that the first law was that you can’t get something for nothing, and that the job of an engineer was “to make things work.” Two days before his death, when a hospital technician was having difficulty with an oxygen mechanism, Kenerson, who was thought to be in a coma, came to his own rescue and said, “Just hand it to me and I’ll fix it for you.” He could still “make things work.” He died in Providence on September 22, 1966, at the age of 92.