Willis, Robert (1800-1875) (DNB00)

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WILLIS, ROBERT (1800–1875), professor of mechanism and archæologist, son of Robert Darling Willis (1760–1821) and grandson of Francis Willis [q. v.], was born in London on 27 Feb. 1800. The tastes that afterwards distinguished him became manifest at a very early age. When a mere lad he was a skilful musician, a good draughtsman, and an eager examiner of every piece of machinery and ancient building that came in his way. In 1819 he patented an improvement on the pedal of the harp, and in 1821 published ‘An Attempt to analyse the Automaton Chess Player’ (London, 1821, 8vo), a mechanical contrivance then being exhibited in London, which ‘had excited the admiration of the curious during a period little short of forty years’ (p. 9). After repeated visits to the exhibition in company with his sister, he was enabled to show that there was ample room for a man of small stature to be concealed within the figure and the box on which he sat, an explanation the truth of which the owner afterwards admitted.

His health was delicate, and he was educated privately till 1821, when he became a pupil of the Rev. Mr. Kidd at King's Lynn. In 1822 he entered into residence at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as a pensioner. He proceeded B.A. in 1826, when he was ninth wrangler. He was elected Frankland fellow of his college in the same year, and foundation fellow in 1829. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1827. After his election to a fellowship he devoted himself to the study of mechanism, selecting at first subjects in which mathematics were blended with animal mechanism, as shown by his papers in the ‘Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ ‘On the Vowel Sounds’ (1828) and ‘On the Mechanism of the Larynx’ (1828–9). The last has been accepted by anatomists as containing the true theory of the action of that organ. In 1830 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1837 he succeeded William Farish [q. v.] as Jacksonian professor of applied mechanics at Cambridge, an office which he held till his death. His practical knowledge of carpentry, his inventive genius, and his power of lucid exposition made him a most attractive professor, and his lecture-room was always full. Farish was a man of great originality, whose lectures Willis had attended (as he told the present writer), and when he published his own ‘System of Apparatus for the use of Lecturers and Experimenters in Mechanical Philosophy’ (London, 1851, 4to) he described his predecessor's method of building up a model of a machine before the audience, and gave him full credit for ‘devising a system of mechanical apparatus consisting of the separate parts of which machines are made, so adapted to each other that they might admit of being put together at pleasure in the form of any machine that might be required’ (p. 1). This system, as modernised and perfected by Willis, has been largely adopted both at home and abroad.

In 1837 Willis read a paper ‘On the Teeth of Wheels’ (Trans. Inst. Civ. Eng. ii. 89), with a description of a contrivance called an odontograph, for enabling draughtsmen to find at once the centres from which the two portions of the teeth are to be struck. He was the first to point out the practical advantage of constructing cycloidal toothed wheels in what are called ‘sets’ by using the same generating circle and the same pitch throughout the set, with the result that any two wheels of the set will gear together. This invention is in universal use.

In 1841 he published his ‘Principles of Mechanism.’ In this work he reduced the study of what he called pure mechanism to a system. It is the earliest attempt to develop, with anything like completeness, the science of machines considered from the kinematic point of view, without reference to the forces which are at work or to the energy which is transmitted. A machine, according to him, is a contrivance for producing a specific relation between the motions of one of its parts and another. To express this relation completely the two elements velocity-ratio and directional relation are required. Accordingly he groups machines in three general classes: (1) those in which both of these elements are constant; (2) those in which one (a) is constant and the other (b) is variable; (3) those in which this variability is reversed. In each class there are divisions depending on the mode in which motion is communicated, whether by rolling contact, sliding contact, link-work, and so forth. The first part of the book expounds this system of classification as applied to elementary combinations of moving pieces; the second part deals with what he calls aggregate combinations, in which two or more elementary combinations co-operate in producing a relation of motion between the driving and following parts of the machine. A second edition of this work appeared in 1870.

In 1849 Willis was a member of a royal commission appointed to inquire into the application of iron to railway structures, and contributed to the report of the commissioners Appendix B, ‘On the effects produced by causing weights to travel over elastic bars,’ reprinted in Barlow's ‘Treatise on the Strength of Timber.’

In 1851 he was one of the jurors of the Great Exhibition. In that capacity he drew up the report for the class of manufacturing machines and tools, and contributed a lecture to the series on the results of the exhibition, organised by the Society of Arts in 1852. He was also a vice-president at the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and reporter of the class for the machinery of textile fabrics. In connection with this office he published in 1857 a report on machinery for woven fabrics, for which he received the cross of the Legion of Honour. When the government school of mines was established in Jermyn Street in 1853, Willis was engaged as lecturer on applied mechanics. In 1862 he was president of the British Association, which that year met at Cambridge; and in the following year at Newcastle he presided over the mechanical section.

During all these years Willis was studying architecture and archæology with the same energy as mechanism, and perhaps with even greater originality. In 1835, after a rapid tour through a part of France, Germany, and Italy, he published ‘Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages, especially of Italy,’ a work which first called serious attention to the Gothic style, and which in many ways is still without a rival. He treated a building as he treated a machine: he took it to pieces; he pointed out what was structural and what was decorative, what was imitated and what was original; and how the most complex forms of mediæval invention might be reduced to simple elements. This publication was the starting-point of that portion of his career which was devoted to studies combining practical architecture with historical and antiquarian research. For these he was singularly well fitted. He had no sentiment and no preconceived theory. His mechanical knowledge enabled him to understand construction, and his power of observation was so keen that he never failed to seize the meaning of the faintest indication that fell in his way. The industry that he brought to bear on these pursuits was amazing. He learnt to decipher mediæval handwriting with rapidity and accuracy, and devoted much time to the study of manuscript authorities; he mastered not only the whole literature of the subject, but that of the history that bore upon it; and, as the mass of notes bequeathed by him to the present writer shows, he tabulated the information thus gained with infinite care, so as to have it always ready to his hand when wanted.

The ‘Remarks’ were succeeded by an elaborate paper ‘On the Construction of the Vaults of the Middle Ages’ (Trans. Inst. Brit. Arch. 1841), an essay as remarkable for thoroughness of treatment as for the beauty of the illustrations, all drawn by himself. By this time his reputation for architectural knowledge was established, for in this year the dean and chapter of Hereford consulted him respecting the condition of their cathedral. He published the result of his investigations in a ‘Report of a Survey of the Dilapidated Portions of Hereford Cathedral in the year 1841’ (Hereford, 1842, 8vo; and London, 1842, 4to, with plates). In this same year he invented and described the ‘Cymagraph for copying mouldings’ (Engineers' Journ. July 1842), a contrivance which he himself used extensively in his own researches, but which did not meet with general acceptance. In 1843 he published his ‘Architectural Nomenclature of the Middle Ages’ (Trans. Cambr. Ant. Soc. vol. i.), a work of vast research and great ingenuity, useful alike to a lexicographer and an archæologist.

The foundation of the Archæological Institute in 1844 opened a new field for Willis. He was one of the first members, as he was also one of the most energetic, and a lecture from him was the chief attraction at the annual meeting. His method, as he states in his ‘Architectural History of Winchester Cathedral’ (1846), was ‘to bring together all the recorded evidence that belongs to the building; to examine the building itself for the purpose of investigating the mode of its construction, and the successive changes and additions that have been made to it; and, lastly, to compare the recorded evidence with the structural evidence as much as possible.’ By this comprehensive scheme he laid bare the entire history of the structure; the history was elucidated by the building, and the changes in the building were made manifest by the history; while his own thorough knowledge of the different styles of architecture enabled him to see through alterations, transformations, and insertions which had puzzled all previous investigators. In this way he elucidated the cathedrals of Canterbury (1844), Winchester (1845), York (1846), Chichester (1853), Worcester (1862), Sherborne and Glastonbury (1865). These have been published; but he also read papers and delivered lectures on the following without, however, finding leisure to publish what he had said: Norwich (1847), Salisbury (1849), Oxford (1850), Wells (1851), Gloucester (1860), Peterborough (1861), Rochester (1863), Lichfield (1864).

As a lecturer Willis had extraordinary gifts. He used neither manuscript nor notes; but, whether he was describing a machine or a building, an uninterrupted stream of lucid exposition flowed from his lips, carrying his hearers without weariness through the most intricate details, and making them grasp the most complex history or construction. In addition to his annual lectures at Cambridge, in London, or to the Archæological Institute, Willis lectured at the Royal Institution on sound in 1831, and on architecture in 1846 and 1847. He also gave special courses of lectures to working men in London between 1854 and 1867.

Willis also published a ‘Description of the Sextry Barn at Ely’ (Trans. Cambr. Ant. Soc. 1843, vol. i.); ‘History of the Great Seals of England’ (Arch. Journ. 1846, vol. ii.); ‘Architectural History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem’ (London, 1849, 8vo), a remarkable achievement, as he had not visited it; ‘Description of the Ancient Plan of the Monastery of St. Gall’ (Arch. Journ. 1848); ‘A Westminster Fabric Roll of 1253’ (Gent. Mag. 1860); ‘On Foundations discovered in Lichfield Cathedral’ (Arch. Journ. 1860); ‘On the Crypt and Chapter House of Worcester Cathedral’ (Trans. Inst. Brit. Arch. 1863).

In the course of these studies he edited, or more correctly rewrote, a considerable portion of Parker's ‘Glossary of Architecture’ (5th ed. 1850); and published a ‘Facsimile of the Sketch-book of Wilars de Honecort’ (London, 1859, 4to), with a text partly from the French of M. Lassus, partly by himself. But perhaps his most remarkable archæological work is his last, ‘The Architectural History of the Conventual Buildings of the Monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury’ (London, 1869, 8vo). He had promised to do this in 1844, when he lectured on the cathedral, but other engagements had stood in the way of publication. It is a minute and perfectly accurate exposition of the plan of a Benedictine monastery, considered in relation to the monastic life.

His health did not allow him to complete his comprehensive work on the ‘Architectural History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge,’ which originated in a lecture delivered before the Archæological Institute at its meeting at Cambridge in 1854. This was completed after his death by the present writer, and published by the University Press in 1886 (4 vols. imp. 8vo).

Willis died at Cambridge on 28 Feb. 1875 of bronchitis; his health had been seriously impaired for some years previously. He married, on 26 July 1832, Mary Anne, daughter of Charles Humfrey of Cambridge.

[Venn's Biogr. Hist. of Gonville and Caius College, 1898, ii. 182; Arch. Journ. passim; private knowledge.]

J. W. C-k.