Professor named Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering

Bill Hammack, also known as the Engineer Guy, is noted for making his field relatable and accessible


Bill Hammack and Venetria K. Patton
Venetria K. Patton, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS, presents the Grainger Distinguished Chair medal to professor Bill Hammack during the investiture ceremony. (Courtesy of the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.)

Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor William S. Hammack was invested as Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering in a recent ceremony.

The ceremony included remarks by John Coleman, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost; Christopher Rao, Ray and Beverly Mentzer Professor and head of the Department of Biomolecular & Chemical Engineering; and Venetria K. Patton, Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Philippe Geubelle, executive associate dean for The Grainger College of Engineering, led the ceremony.

The investiture was another in a long line of accolades conferred upon Hammack for the novel ways that he makes science and engineering accessible to the public, to students and to members of the engineering profession – perhaps most famously through his pioneering use of internet-based video on YouTube as the EngineerGuy.

Science communication and outreach has been Hammack’s mission since joining the Illinois faculty in 1997. During the ceremony, Hammack shared the letter he received from then-department head Charles “Chip” Zukowski, offering him a position on the faculty to “develop outreach and educational activities that are recognized at the state and national levels” – a new, experimental position for the department.

In the ensuing years, Hammack developed a series of more than 200 public radio pieces that described what engineers do, why they do it and how. He established the engineerguyvideo YouTube channel in 2010 where his videos – on subjects ranging from the way medieval cathedrals were built to the engineering of a retractable ballpoint pen – have been viewed tens of millions of times. Hammack has also written several books and essays.

Group at investiture ceremony
From left: Venetria K. Patton, John Coleman, Bill Hammack, Chris Rao, and Philippe Geubelle at the investiture ceremony. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.)

In his remarks, Rao noted that a viewer can turn to public television and find shows about topics like astronomy and quantum physics, but that there is very little programming about the wonders of everyday technology and engineering. That is why [Hammack’s approach] is brilliant, he said.

“Bill has defined a unique and trailblazing career of explaining engineering in simple terms,” Rao said. “He can take a very simple topic like a soda can, and talk about all the thought and technology and engineering hard work that goes into making such a simple, everyday device.”

“A lot of what we do in academia is, we try to be enlightened,” Rao continued. “We’re trying to discover new principles. But we never really think about the entertainment aspect, to make it accessible to other people. That’s what really defines Bill: taking something complex and abstract – that’s not necessarily easy to digest – but then making it digestible, entertaining and really fun through the different mechanisms he uses.”

Hammack thanked several people for their support over the years, including the department heads who encouraged him and gave him the space to create, his current content co-creators, his colleagues and his family. He also thanked the dean of the Grainger College of Engineering for this named appointment.

“It means a great deal to me because the College of Engineering is not my home college – that’s Liberal Arts & Sciences – and as we heard in the letter and as Chris alluded to, this was a new type of position and consequently not always able to find a natural way to fit into the university structures here,” Hammack said. “And so it’s wonderful to have someone reach across my studio door, if you will, and invite me to be a part of something bigger than just the work that I am doing.”

Grainger Distinguished Chairs in Engineering are made possible by the Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative, resulting from a $100 million investment in The Grainger College of Engineering by The Grainger Foundation.

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Kristina Shidlauski