James Van Ness, Emeritus Professor and Alumnus, Passes Away

Electrical engineer contributed to the study of large-scale networks

James E. Van Ness (MS ’51, PhD ’54), emeritus professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University, passed away at age 90 on September 9 after a long illness. He will be remembered as a devoted teacher, valued mentor, and friend.

James E. Van NessA member of Northwestern’s faculty since 1952, Van Ness made major contributions to the area of large-scale networks, including early computer systems and the power grid. His work was a driver in bringing high-performance computers to Northwestern in the 1970s — a time when computers were so massive that they required their own buildings.

Van Ness’s pioneering work led him to be elected in 1988 to the National Academy of Engineering, which cited his development of computer algorithms used in the design and operation of electrical power systems. He was also elected as a fellow to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1981 for his contributions to research and education in computer analysis of power systems. Van Ness was also a member of Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, and the Association of Computing Machinery.

“Jim was truly a gentleman and a scholar,” said Alan Sahakian, chair and professor of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “He was very modest and down-to-earth in spite of his many accomplishments and distinctions.”

Van Ness was inspired to pursue electrical engineering after serving in the US Navy, where he spent two years working with radar equipment on an aircraft carrier. When his service ended, Van Ness earned his master’s degree in 1951 and then PhD in 1954 in electrical engineering at Northwestern. Before he had even finished his PhD, he joined Northwestern as a lecturer in 1952 and later became a full professor. 

With the exception of joining the University of California at Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology for brief stints as a visiting professor, Van Ness spent his entire tenure at Northwestern. He was the director of Northwestern’s computing center from 1962 to 1965 and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 1969 to 1972.

Although his research into power systems earned him international recognition, Van Ness most valued teaching and spending time with his students. He also enjoyed music, gardening, travel, photography, history books, and trains.

Van Ness is survived by Mary Ellen, his wife of 67 years, and his four daughters, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Services will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 24 in the Elliot Chapel at Westminster Place in Evanston. Donations may be made in Van Ness’s name to the First United Methodist Church, Music Ministry, 516 Church Street, Evanston, IL 60201 or to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 1359 Broadway, Suite 1509, New York, New York 10018.