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Don M. Cunningham

Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus


1919 – 2004


Don M. Cunningham was born on September 1, 1919 on a farm in Lyna, Indiana, and his family moved to Southern California in 1923. He attended local schools in the Los Angeles area and completed a pre-engineering program at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1940. He then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley campus, where he graduated with the B.S. degree in mechanical engineering in 1942. These were the years of World War II, and Don became involved as a research engineer in the wartime research under John Dorn and Eric Thomsen on problems of metal forming. He is listed as coauthor on three papers published while completing the requirements for the M.S. degree, awarded in 1944. In 1945 he accepted a part-time teaching appointment in the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory at UC Berkeley and was appointed to the position of assistant professor in the Division of Mechanics and Design in 1948.


In 1945, the wartime metal forming research ended and Don began a lifelong interest in problems of the physically handicapped. He joined the interdisciplinary research team of Howard D. Eberhart, professor of civil engineering, and Dr. Verne T. Inman, professor of orthopedic surgery (San Francisco), as they began their study of Human Locomotion and Other Studies Related to Improvements in Artificial Limbs. Don’s expertise as a design engineer in the area of experimental mechanics was immediately put to work in the design of instruments for the study of normal human gait and the special problems of amputee walking. He was the principal designer, along with G. Wayne Brown, of a force plate system, mounted in the walking surface, capable of measuring and recording all components of the floor reaction force, including the center of pressure. This was achieved by the unique design of four support pylons for the platform that featured strain gage bridge circuits for measuring each component independently. The measurement of similar data for amputees was made possible by the design of a force and moment sensing strain gage pylon that could be installed above the foot in a prosthesis.


Later in his career he was the principal investigator on Special Vehicles for the Severely Disabled. An important product of this project was the design and testing of an adjustable-height wheelchair that allowed a handicapped person to raise it up to kitchen counter height, or sit at tables, or to lower it in order to pass under obstacles.


Don was an active researcher in the field of experimental mechanics, where he collaborated with Werner Goldsmith in studies of stress waves due to impact and with G. Wayne Brown on the development of a method for the calibration of Stresscoat™ using an impact test. He was an innovative bioengineer who became interested in the forces generated within the human body by the circulation of blood within the heart. Encouraged by Dr. H. E. Griswold at the University of Oregon, Don, along with G. Wayne Brown and their students, designed, built, and tested the first three-degrees-of-freedom ballistocardiograph. This device, later installed at the University of Oregon, measured the impact on the human body when the heart beats; hence it allows the calculation of the volume of blood flow in three directions. Ballistocardiography became a major research area; and their research group later designed, built, and tested a unique six-degrees-of-freedom instrument with the human subject lying on a table supported by spherical air bearings. The air bearings created a horizontal period of 10 seconds in any direction, the equivalent of a pendulum 82 feet long. The entire table was supported by linear air bearings to isolate it from ground motion.


Don served as local chairman of the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis and on the Papers Committee and executive committee for the national organization. He also served as president of the Ballistocardiograph Research Society, 1971-1973, and as editor of its newsletter.


Don will be remembered by his colleagues and friends in mechanical engineering as a tireless and enthusiastic worker in improving the teaching of experimental mechanics and design engineering. He was active in the development of experiments in the area of dynamics and stress analysis for the senior mechanical engineering laboratory course. He also was responsible for the development of upper division and graduate level courses in the areas of applied stress analysis and experimental mechanics. He was an active outdoorsman who enjoyed backpacking in the high Sierra.


Don died in Grass Valley, California, on December 21, 2004, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife, Willy, his sons Paul and Vance, daughters Wendy Rossi and Gail Castellini, six grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and his sister, Virginia Blake.



Charles Radcliffe

Joseph Frisch