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William Joseph Chancellor
In Memoriam

William Joseph Chancellor

Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Emeritus

UC Davis

Professor Emeritus William Chancellor passed away peacefully in Davis on February 16. He is survived by his wife, Nongkarn, daughter, Marisa (husband Michael Hacker), and two grandchildren.

Bill was born in Virginia in 1931. Soon thereafter, his family moved to Chicago, then, in 1942, to a Southern Wisconsin dairy farm. Bill attended a one-room school with 20 students ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade. After graduating from high school as valedictorian, Bill attended the University of Wisconsin (BS degrees in Agriculture and Mechanical Engineering, 1954) and Cornell University (M.S., thesis on tractor performance, 1956; Ph.D., thesis on force and energy requirements in forage harvesting, 1957).

Bill started his career with UC Davis in 1957, having been hired by Roy Bainer “pretty much sight-unseen” to work on a multi-disciplinary soil compaction project.  He quickly emerged as a brilliant scientist and engineer and an outstanding instructor. He taught traditional courses on agricultural machinery and agricultural power, and originated courses on soil mechanics, soil-machine relations in tillage and traction, stability of off-road vehicles, land vehicles, energy relations in agricultural production, electrical power equipment, technology for agriculture in developing countries, and farm machinery management. Many of his courses served as models for similar offerings at institutions around the world.

Bill created innovative teaching means to increase understanding of complex topics, such as a clear physical demonstration of how an inertially propelled vehicle can produce more draft force than a standard tractor. He could also, within an hour, teach a neophyte how to ride a bicycle.

In 1960 Bill took a sabbatical in Thailand "to study traditional agricultural implements" and returned with his bride, Nongkarn, whom he had met four years previously.

Bill conducted research on a wide range of topics, from the mechanics of cutting plant materials to economic optimization of equipment use. His chief contributions were in three areas:

1. Soils, tillage and traction. His pioneering work, begun in 1957, on soil physical properties, compaction of agricultural soils, and tillage and traction, produced crucial, fundamental understanding for design and use of off-road vehicles. He shed new light on the dynamic interaction between soils and tillage tools, and developed a new approach to predict draft requirements for agricultural implements. His definitive 1976 bulletin on soil compaction drew requests for over 13,000 copies. Bill played a major role in planning the three-volume monograph series, Advances in Soil Dynamics, published by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE, now ASABE), and wrote 80 percent of the 300-page first volume (1994). For his accomplishments in this area he was honored in 2004 with the John Deere Gold Medal, one of the two top awards bestowed by ASAE.

2. Energy and information. Bill believed that people in agriculture should not have to be burdened with so much physical work, so he researched the role of inanimate energy, leading the landmark investigation into energy use in California agriculture. Along with Professor John Goss, he conducted a comprehensive global review, published in Science (1976), that provided key insights into allocating energy to meet future food needs. Bill foresaw that information technology would play a major role in agriculture. In 1981 he published an article on his visionary concept of using information to reduce energy and other inputs, and later employed this idea to develop more efficient and sustainable food production systems. His concepts are increasingly being realized in precision sensing and automation.

3. International agriculture. Bill excelled in international agriculture, conducting numerous studies of needs and possibilities for appropriate mechanization of small-scale agriculture. He focused much effort on tractors for developing countries, e.g., design of two-wheeled tractors for manufacture in Mexico, and boat-tractor hulls that minimize soil drag. Bill’s teaching and research took him to Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Egypt, England, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Taiwan and Tanzania. He was the most recognized agricultural engineer in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. He received the ASAE Kishida International Award (1984) and the Asian Association for Agricultural Engineering Distinguished Service Award (2000) for his outstanding success at fostering agricultural development in third-world countries. Many of Bill’s former graduate students have continued his legacy at international universities and institutes.

Bill published over 120 refereed articles and was granted five patents – on automatic control of traction, singulation and precision planting of small seeds, and conducted-heat drying of grains.

Beginning in 1986, Bill created and distributed without charge the first comprehensive, searchable electronic database of agricultural engineering literature. The widely used database covered articles from 11 journals as well as Bill’s own collection of 23,000 items. He updated the database annually and encouraged the development of an online system by ASAE. For his contributions, Bill received an ASAE Presidential Citation (1996).

He was known as a “walking encyclopedia” by his peers, who often referred their students to him for advice. He held a deep concern for the needs and welfare of all students, and selflessly provided the benefit of his experience, insight, and wisdom.

Bill retired in 1994 after 37 years with the university, although he remained very active on campus. He was a 63-year member of ASABE and continued to participate in ASABE’s annual meetings for many years after his retirement.

Bill was inducted as a Fellow of ASAE (1985), and elected a Fellow of the International Commission of Agricultural Engineering/Commission Internationale du Génie Rural (2010). He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005. In honor of his great service to the Davis campus, Bill was chosen, prior to his passing, to receive the UC Davis Medal. The Medal was presented posthumously in 2017.

Department Chair Roger Garrett wrote in 1983, “What emerges from a review of Dr. Chancellor’s publications is the image of a person who is intensely interested in the problems of agriculture, both in California and world wide, a person who is exceptionally competent as an engineer able to grasp problems, both of a global nature and at the level where the machine design details interface with the physical properties of agricultural materials; and a person who is sensitive to the needs and aspirations of people at home and abroad.”

Bruce Hartsough
Bryan Jenkins
R. Paul Singh
Shrinivasa Upadhyaya