Obituary of Dr. Robert Cannon Jr.

Robert Hamilton Cannon, Jr., professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University for three decades, died peacefully on August 15, 2017.

The Memorial Service will be held at 2:00PM, Saturday September 23, at Valley Presbyterian Church, 945 Portola Rd., Portola Valley.

Born to Robert Hamilton Cannon Sr. and Catharine Dodge Putnam on October 6th, 1923, he grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He earned his BS in Engineering from the University of Rochester in New York, then began his Pacific tour as an Ensign in the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Two years later, he was sent to Florida for radar training, a brand new field at the time, and assigned to a destroyer, which went to Guantanamo, Cuba to explore uses of this new technology.  On January 4, 1945, He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothea Alta Collins.

After the Navy, he earned his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied with Professor J. P. Den Hartog and wrote his dissertation on the “Performance of Hydrofoil Systems,” which provided the design for the world’s first hydrofoil sailboat (built by Baker Manufacturing). At 32 knots per hour, his hydrofoil remained the world’s fastest sailboat for over 30 years.  While at MIT, he also got his early experience with Inertial Guidance Systems at the Draper Lab.

In 1950, the new “Dr.” Cannon took a job in Whittier, California working both as an aeronautical engineer for North American Aviation and as a professor of Aeronautics at UCLA. Then, in 1957, he returned to MIT as a professor of Engineering until Stanford University asked him to build up their Guidance and Control program in 1959. Cannon was promised “good funding” at Stanford, because the Russians had just launched Sputnik.

While teaching Guidance and Control and helping to grow the department at Stanford, Cannon authored Dynamics of Physical Systems (904 pp), which became one of the most utilized textbooks for advanced engineering students internationally. During the next 30 years the department acquired a world-class faculty and graduated an astonishing number of unusually talented graduate students. Many of their theses were in the arena of inertial guidance systems. One of the most significant accomplishments of the department was the creation of the “world’s most perfect gyroscopes,” which were used in the Gravity Probe B Experiments that were conducted to measure time-space curvature and to test (and prove correct) Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  He also was the founder of the Aerospace Robotics Lab (ARL).

Although he was primarily engaged with Stanford University from 1959 to 1995, he took some notable leaves of absence.  From 1966 until 1968 he was Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force at the Pentagon, from 1970 until 1974 he was Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Research and Development under Richard Nixon, and from 1975 until 1979 he was the Dean of the School of Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.  In 1979, Dr. Cannon returned to Stanford for good, serving as Chair of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics until he retired in 1995.  He, then, continued to live on the Stanford Campus as Professor Emeritus until his death.

Cannon had 7 children by his first wife Dorothea (who died in 1988). He is survived by these children: Philip Gregory Cannon of Vallejo, CA; Douglas Charles Cannon of Sichuan, China; Beverly Cannon Mosier of Newark, CA, Frederick Scott Cannon of State College, Pennsylvania; David John Cannon, Joseph Collins Cannon-Morrett of Santa Clara, CA and James Robert Cannon of San Jose, CA. He is also survived by his wonderful second wife of nearly 30 years, Vera Berlin Cannon, and her three daughters, his sister, Lois Alberts of Middlebury, VT as well as 13 grandchildren and 9 great-granchildren, and 5 nieces and 2 nephews.