Automatica, June 2002, Volume 38, No. 6



Harold Chestnut, First IFAC President

IFAC came into existence in 1957 under the leadership of its Executive Council and first President Harold Chestnut, distinguished engineer from the United States. We now record with sadness the death of Dr. Chestnut on 29 August 2001 and, with his passing, the departure of all members of IFAC's first Executive Council.

Hal Chestnut died at the age of 83 in Schenectady, NY, the town in which he spent essentially all of his long and productive life. He earned BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from MIT in 1939 and 1940 and received an Honorary Doctorate in engineering from Case Institute of Technology in 1966 and Villanova University in 1972. Hal began a life-long career in the control field with the General Electric Company in 1940. During the Second World War he was both a student and instructor in GE's well-known Advanced Engineering Program, an in-house education activity in GE which, in a real sense, was a model for industry based advanced technical education in the United States in the twentieth century.

Chestnut's early control work concerned stability issues in electric power systems. The design and manufacturing of electric power system components - generators, transformers, motors, etc. was a major part of GE's activity then and now. During the Second World War Hal moved into aeronautics and ordinance divisions of the company and remained there until 1956. It was in the late 1940s that he wrote his first book [1]. This pace-setting volume established his reputation as a leading figure in the international control community.

The discussions leading to an agreement to form IFAC took place in Heidelberg at the Regelungstechnik Congress in September 1956. Rufus Oldenberger, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, was instrumental in recommending that Harold Chestnut be selected as IFAC's first President. IFAC was formally established in 1957 after a year of preparation by a working group suggested by Chestnut. It consisted of representatives from West Germany, the USSR, France, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the USA. In the midst of the Cold War, IFAC was organized as a federation of national member organizations, the only model acceptable at that time to organizations behind the Iron Curtain. The tension between the US and USSR was, of course, present in all international negotiations and IFAC was no exception. The compromise reached in the case of IFAC was to have a US engineer serve as the first IFAC President and have the first IFAC Congress in Moscow. So Hal's term of office as President ended in 1959 and Alexander Letov served as second President and host of the First IFAC congress in 1960. Subsequent to that each President would have an IFAC congress in his own country at the end of his term of office. With a delicate balance of representation from all sides, IFAC thrived under the guidance of Chestnut and colleagues from throughout the world [6] It should be noted that MIT's Radiation Laboratory where, for example, Nathaniel Nichols did much of his pioneering work, was a meeting place in the 1940s for control engineers from many countries. The personal relationships that developed at that time and in those trying circumstances later would help form the network that became IFAC. Chestnut was not part of the MIT group but many of the early IFAC officials had been involved in the war effort including some association with MIT.

Its founders shape the first period in the life of a professional organization. In my country we frequently see companies that thrive during the active lifetime of their founders but lose their way upon his/her death or departure from an active leadership role. In other cases the founders build such a strong foundation for future development that the structure only grows stronger with time and, in particular, long after the founding team leaves the scene. The second scenario is often directly attributable to the vision and dedication of the founders. IFAC is a prime example. Part of the unwritten IFAC philosophy is the concept of the IFAC family. For most of its active leaders, IFAC is a personal network of professional colleagues whose interests transcend political strictures and focus on common technical interests. At the beginning, this was essential because the active members were from both sides of the Iron Curtain and IFAC could survive only if the "family" remained above political turbulence. Of the 30 insightful members of the original concept development group that conceived IFAC only a few remain with us now but their legacy has endured.

After his successful term as IFAC President from 1957 to 1959 Hal maintained an active role in IFAC. Although later Presidents came from the ranks of the most active IFAC leaders, Hal's role in IFAC started with the Presidency and his other IFAC leadership roles came later. He chaired the Advisory Committee, now called the Technical Board, from 1961 to 1966 and the Systems Engineering Technical Committee during the 1966-69 triennium. He served as Honorary Editor from 1969 to 1972 and was in the first group of Advisors appointed for life in 1984.

In 1961 Dr. Chestnut, outside his IFAC roles, served as co-chairman of the Honorary Editorial Advisory Board of a commercial control journal, whose full title was AUTOMATICA, The International Journal on Automatic Control and Automation. This journal was founded, owned and published by Pergamon Press in Oxford, under the leadership of its flamboyant chairman Robert Maxwell. Unfortunately there is not space here to relate the story of Bob Maxwell and his important contributions to IFAC in the late 1960s and 1970s but suffice it to say that Hal Chestnut (and John Coales, IFAC's fourth President) played a significant role in bringing Maxwell and IFAC together for what has proven to be a most important publications business relationship. The first of these ventures was AUTOMATICA. The formal announcement that the journal and IFAC would join forces was made at the London IFAC Congress in 1966. The key to success of this journal would be the identification of a renowned Editor. Again we must omit the detailed story of the journal's integration into IFAC. It should be noted that AUTOMATICA was only marginally successful until it actually became the IFAC Journal under the editorship of George Axelby whose service extended from 1968 to the end of 1993. Hal's assistance in the transition to IFAC journal status with George as AUTOMATICA Editor-in-Chief was very helpful to the successful launch of a new enterprise for IFAC. Over the past three decades this has led to the present day in which publications account for much of IFAC's success as the leading professional society in the control field, and contributes about half of IFAC's annual operating income.

In addition to his Pergamon Press connection, Hal became editor of a John Wiley book series on systems engineering and analysis. Wiley published not only Chestnut's first book [1] but also other books of his in 1955, 1959, and 1967 [2-5].

Dr. Chestnut continued with the General Electric Company until retirement in 1983. Major assignments included serving as manager of the Systems Engineering and Analysis Branch of the Advanced Technology Laboratory working on a wide variety of technical problems including reliability issues in rapid transit and the Apollo mission to the moon. Even later in his career he returned to the field of electric power. This time the focus was power systems automation.

Following retirement he concentrated on one of his long time passions in the control field - the potential for control concepts to provide insight into problems of international stability. In reviewing material for this obituary I was struck by his comment recorded in the Proceedings of the 2nd IFAC World Congress in Basle in 1963. "Lest we become complacent, however, I should like to point out two other fields for serious attention by control people. These are [2]: ...  The need for working with qualified people in the social, economic, and political fields to help make the net effect of automatic control and automation a cause for hope rather than a reason for fear. ... The opportunities for a better world at peace make the challenge for using automation for the betterment of man one that is certainly worth working for." Two years before his retirement, Dr. Chestnut received the prestigious Honda Prize for ecotechnology and with it a substantial financial award. After retirement he used this fund to create the "SWIIS Foundation", a private foundation devoted to identify and implement "supplemental ways to improve international stability". He devoted the last productive years of his life in the 1980s and 1990s to this effort in which he applied principles from the control field, such as stability and feedback, to international political realities. This led to the creation of the SWIIS Working Group within IFAC, a series of workshops that have continued for more than a decade, and a loosely organized group of scientists and engineers, mostly from the control field, who meet from time to time and communicate regularly about this topic.

Although this note emphasizes Harold Chestnut's many contributions to IFAC and the technology it represents, his impact on the engineering profession is wider and more comprehensive than might be evident here. Before 1963 he chaired the AIEE Technical Committees on Automatic Control and on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. After the AIEE and IRE merged in 1963 to form the IEEE, he had several major leadership roles in the IEEE culminating in his term as President of the IEEE in 1973. He was a Fellow of the AIEE, ISA, and AAAS. He was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering in 1974 and selected as a Case Centennial Scholar in 1980. He won the IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984 and the AACC Bellman Heritage Award in 1985. In 1998 Harold Chestnut and the Chestnut Family provided a gift to IFAC for the IFAC Textbook Prize. Income from this generous gift is used to fund the award for an outstanding textbook author recognized at each IFAC Congress.

We will miss him but are heartened by the knowledge that IFAC will continue to benefit from his leadership.

Stephen Kahne 
14th IFAC President 
IFAC Advisor


  1. H. Chestnut, R.W. Mayer, Servomechanisms and Regulating Systems Design, Vol. 1, Wiley, 1951
  2. H. Chestnut, R. W. Mayer, Servomechanisms and Regulating Systems Design, Vol. 2. Wiley, 1955
  3. H. Chestnut, R. W. Mayer, Servomechanisms and Regulating Systems Design, 2nd edition, Wiley, 1959.
  4. H. Chestnut, Systems Engineering Tools, Wiley 1965
  5. H. Chestnut, Systems Engineering Methods, Wiley, 1967
  6. U. Luoto et al, "20 Years Old; 20 years Young", AUTOMATICA, Vol. 14, pp 49-75, 1978, Pergamon Press.