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Professor Emeritus Donald Novotny
May 16, 2022

Remembering Emeritus Professor Donald Novotny

Written By: Allyson Crowley

Electrical and Computer Engineering Emeritus Professor Donald Novotny passed away on May 7, 2022 at the age of 87.  Novotny was a highly-respected visionary in the field of electric machines, variable-frequency AC drive systems, and power electronic control of industrial systems, and an inspiration to innumerable UW-Madison students and colleagues during a career that spanned over a half-century.

Born in December of 1934 and raised on the south side of Chicago, Novotny received a full scholarship from his employer, Illinois Central Railroad, to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  In 1956, he graduated near the top of his class with a BS in electrical engineering, followed by a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1957.  Novotny then accepted a teaching position at IIT and went on to teach both electrical and mechanical engineering courses.  In 1958, he moved to Madison, Wisconsin to pursue and later receive his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Novotny joined the faculty of UW-Madison in 1961, working with the University Industry Research (UIR) Program.  In 1965, he co-authored his first book, Introductory Electromechanics, which is still considered to be a classic in its field today.  By 1968, he had risen to full professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and served as Associate Director of the (UIR) Program from 1972 to 1974, and ECE Department Chair from 1976 to 1980.

In 1980, Novotny created a proposal for the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC) that was ahead of its time.  With an initial grant of $25,000, the program set ambitious goals to expand generic research and teaching efforts that would strengthen interactions between academia and industry.  In January of 1981, WEMPEC was officially launched, and to this day, it remains a premier think-tank where industry partners, UW-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty, staff, students, and international scholars work together to conduct collaborate on research and develop the newest technologies and techniques in electric machines, power electronics, actuators, sensors, drives, motion control, and drive applications.

Professor Emeritus Novotny (fourth from left) with WEMPEC faculty, staff, and students in the fall of 2019.

As a director of WEMPEC from 1981 until his retirement in 1996, Novotny played a critical role in growing the consortium into a vibrant technology center that educates the next generation of engineering researchers and leaders in power electronics and electromechanical power conversion and supports innovative research that benefits its corporate sponsors.  Currently in its 41st year, WEMPEC is an internationally-recognized program that continues to thrive with a network of 80 corporate sponsors and a large, on-campus community that includes 78 faculty, staff, and both graduate and undergraduate students who conduct research and develop the technology innovations needed for future products five to 10 years from commercial production.  It is one of the largest consortiums of its kind in the world with over $1.5 Million in annual funding from industry partners.

Professor Giri Venkataramanan, who enrolled in Novotny’s courses as a graduate student at UW-Madison and is now the current director of WEMPEC, can still vividly recollect Novotny’s memorable lectures from the 1980s, and the major impact that Novotny had on his future. “Throughout his career, Professor Novotny lived the Wisconsin Idea of taking the beneficent effects of this university to the people of the state and is among my greatest role-models that continue to shape my academic life,” says Venkataramanan.

Throughout his illustrious career in the department, Novotny was an educator of the highest caliber who was recognized with many teaching awards, including UW-Madison’s William H. Kiekhofer Teaching Award in 1963.  Additionally, Novotny was acknowledged by the College of Engineering in 1984 with the Benjamin Smith Reynolds Teaching Award and in 1995 by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with the Gerald Holdridge Teaching Award.  Grainger Emeritus Professor of Power Electronics and Electric Machines Thomas Jahns recalls, “Professor Novotny was a consummate educator.  His deep love for teaching was recognized by multiple generations of ECE students during a 57-year UW teaching career who fondly recall both his superb instructional effectiveness coupled with a seemingly endless collection of memorable anecdotes.”

Professor Susan Hagness, Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering remarked, “Professor Novotny inspired countless students in ECE through his inspirational teaching at all levels, from introductory undergraduate circuits courses through advanced graduate courses in electric machines.  His legacy lives on through the generations of ECE faculty who have followed in his footsteps and contributed to our strong record of teaching excellence.”

Novotny’s body of work included six patents, five books, and over 100 journal articles and other publications.  In 1987, he was honored as a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and in 2009, was presented with the prestigious IEEE Nikola Tesla Award.  The society recognized Novotny “for pioneering contributions to the analysis and understanding of AC machine dynamic behavior and performance in adjustable-speed drives”. 

An avid fisherman, Novotny conducted innovative research work in the field of electrofishing and authored a book on the subject.  He was most proud of his publication of a widely used technical bulletin on the topic for improved designs and operational guidelines for electrofishing, published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 1974.

Reminiscing about his colleague, Jahns asserted, “Professor Don Novotny left an indelible mark on the ECE Department and UW-Madison.”