Bidding Farewell to Inspiring Professor Keith Alexander

03 October 2022

Professor Emeritus Keith Alexander recounts the highlights of a distinguished career.

  • Keith-Alexander Main Photo

    Keith standing in front of a Springfree Trampoline he helped design.

Keith Alexander demonstrating Walking on Water

Keith demonstrating his walk-on-water shoes that won a Radio Avon competition. The prize money was used by Keith to fund his PhD.

One of the most distinguished members of the Mechanical Engineering Department is retiring from UC this year. Professor Keith Alexander has had a long association with UC as a student, a teacher, and a leader. His long career has amounted to a huge body of work that he outlined in a presentation to the department on the 27th of July this year. The presentation was a hit with the attendees, one saying to Prof Alexander later: “That talk was really inspiring, it seems as if you picked things that were impossible to do and thought deeply about them and then figured out how to make them happen.” Prof Alexander explained, “I’d never thought of it quite like that before, it was just stuff I enjoyed.”

Prof Alexander’s interest in engineering began at a very young age. His father was an engineer and encouraged his son’s interest in building things - he created model aeroplanes, kites, cars, and all sorts of other projects. One of his biggest builds was a perpetual motion machine that didn’t work, so undaunted, as a nine-year-old, he turned it into a flywheel-powered spacecraft. 

This early interest didn’t immediately convert itself into a desire to become an engineer. Prof Alexander instead tried primary teaching, then completed a BSc at Victoria University before realising that engineering was what he really wanted to study. When he began his engineering degree he instantly felt more at home. “When I came to Canterbury and did my first pro year, I started getting As.” Prof Alexander puts this down to doing a subject he really enjoyed. “I just loved it. I realised that’s the sort of thing I’d loved all my life really. It was just that no one had told me, ‘You are really good at this, you should be doing this’.”

This fascination with tackling new and interesting engineering projects has continued throughout Prof Alexander’s career. The Templin Scroll competition, held by the University of Canterbury Engineering Society for engineering students, has been run since 1941. Prof Alexander discovered this opportunity and submitted a project he had started over the summer holidays, his lifting paddle wheel (LPW). Prof Alexander won the competition by demonstrating the lift that he could get from this particular type of wheel in water. As Prof Alexander says, “If you splash water over the judges, they give you the prize.” The Lifting Paddle Wheel concept became Prof Alexander’s ongoing passion from 1975 to 2002. He converted his master’s on it to a PhD and wrote several publications based on the lessons he learned from it. However, after supervising a master’s for Phil Jamieson, with the LPW at a much bigger size than before, they recognised that the LPW wheels were very dangerous if anyone were to fall in the water while using a craft like that. Prof Alexander explained, “At a certain point it’s time to accept that it’s not going to be a useful mode of transport… and move on.”

During the testing for the LPW Prof Alexander frequently needed to rescue the craft from the middle of the model boat lake in Hagley Park. He ended up inventing a pair of walk-on-water shoes to make this process more pleasant and fun. This became even more useful when he managed to win a competition run by Radio Avon in the late 70s and early 80s twice, the prize money from which he used to fund his PhD.

After completing his PhD and considering his options, Prof Alexander moved to Auckland to work in a consultancy. He had several good mentors there and had some notable successes. This included the fatigue design for giant wool presses which were breaking regularly. He learned a lot about working under time constraints and in making sure projects were as low risk as possible. However, he found that he didn’t have time to think about the things that really interested him. After the stock market crash in the late 80s, a lot of consultants were struggling to get work. Instead of continuing in consultancy, Prof Alexander found an opportunity to work with Hamilton Jet, the legendary Kiwi waterjet company, founded by Sir William Hamilton OBE, inventor of the waterjet propulsion system. They were downsizing but switching from heavy engineering to jetboats and with Prof Alexander’s experience it was a good fit. He managed the design section of the company and was the design engineer for some jets himself, getting a patent on a hydraulic reverse system. Prof Alexander also supervised three PhD students during his time at Hamilton Jet. 

An opportunity to teach design at 300-level came up at UC in 1996 and Prof Alexander gladly accepted. He had always thought that lecturing would be a job he would like to do, but felt he needed to go out into the world and get some experience first.  When asked what advice he would give to graduates, Prof Alexander says, “have a plan, but have a pretty loose sort of a plan … it doesn’t have to be a definite plan, you don’t have to go hard to get it, it’s often just selecting the opportunities that will take you there.” Lecturing at university had always been a goal, so Prof Alexander just kept an eye out for opportunities that would lead him there. One of the main reasons he wanted to come back and teach at university was the ability to have time to think things through. “One of the things I’ve really valued is the idea of academic freedom, which is part of the University Charter. I really loved that idea, I could research anything I liked, so when projects came along that I liked, I’d get stuck in.”

Prof Alexander remembers that one of his teaching highlights was to give the initial design lecture about his Springfree Trampoline. A thousand students, the whole cohort for the year, would attend. Prof Alexander said “It’s really quite impressive to tell my story, that started in a little house with a white picket fence in Bryndwr, and then have 1000 people clapping at the end of it. You think, “Wow, this is quite big.” The trampoline became a big story for Prof Alexander, as it is the design project he is most known for around the world. He is described by his US distributor as the Dyson of trampolines. The Springfree trampoline has been designed from the ground up to be safe, with a net around the edge, and no obvious springs to fall through. Its safety is backed up by papers Prof Alexander has researched in the US and Australia. He has conclusively demonstrated that harm has been avoided for people buying these trampolines. Every 15 sold keeps a child out of an Emergency Department. With over 500,000 sold all over the world they can extrapolate that 30,000 children have been kept out of hospital. Prof Alexander was interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio in 2019 about this project and some of the other design projects he has been working on recently if you want to listen further to this story.

Prof Alexander has also worked with a few “interesting people” who like to work with the university on trying out their ideas. The first is Glenn Martin, who wanted to answer all our prayers and finally bring a jetpack to life. He used Prof Alexander as a consultant and several UC engineering students, especially Mickey Speck who did his PhD on it. 

A steelworks engineer from Temuka called Bob Harris had a concept for a human-sized plane called a SkyBoard that would fly someone around the sky after releasing it from a plane or helicopter. Then the person would leave the SkyBoard via their parachute and the SkyBoard would parachute itself to the ground. The concept was completed and tested. Unfortunately early versions would get trapped in an uncontrollable spin. More work by other consultants since that time has got the Skyboard to a point where there is significant overseas interest.

Alan Gibbs is the last in the trio of interesting people and was probably the most successful. He got Prof Alexander working on the Aquada - a high-speed car that turns into a high-speed jet boat on entering the water. Alan bought the patent for folding wheels and built the vehicle. It looks like something James Bond would use. Alan was having issues with the jet, so he approached Prof Alexander. The work they did was all in secret until it was finally released. Richard Branson then used it to make the fastest amphibious crossing of the English Channel in 2004. 

One of the things Prof Alexander has felt privileged to do during his career, is to come full circle with a visit to the National Transonic Facility at NASA in the US. Prof Alexander learned about aerofoils after his father showed him a book called Theory of Wing Sections by Ira H. Abbott, the Director of Aeronautical and Space research at NASA in the 1940s and 50s. The testing for the book had been done in a wind tunnel in the US run by NASA in 1940. In 2014 Prof Alexander was asked by NZTE to assess that same wind tunnel for possible use in NZ, as NASA was intending to decommission it. After the day assessing the wind tunnel, he found himself standing outside the nearby National Transonic Facility, the most high-tech wind tunnel in the world, waiting to be picked up, and had a chance to reflect on the fact that his career had brought him to this point. He wrote, “Standing with my back to the National Transonic Facility and looking at the vapor trails in the darkening sky, seeing the moon up there, the radio dishes on the skyline, thinking, “This is where flight to that moon up there started”. It’s just remarkable how far we’ve come in the 120 years since the Wright brothers first flew. We engineers are privileged to understand how that all happened and to know how to change the world, and I felt honoured to be there.” 

Prof Alexander has now been made Professor Emeritus by the UC Council. He has several projects he wants to get on with too, the first, sorting and tidying his university office. He still has some postgraduate students to supervise. But most of all he’s excited about having the time to find out what he really likes doing, as opposed to the next new thing. When we offered him this interview Prof Alexander was as humble as ever, saying “I’m honoured that people are taking notice.” Of course we are taking notice, such a distinguished and storied career is one to be celebrated. Thank you, Professor Alexander, for your huge contribution to the university and the field of engineering in New Zealand and the world.  

 

  • KeithAlexander_Nasa

    Keith's photo standing in front of the National Transonic Facility at NASA.

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