College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ECpE mourns the loss of Jim Nilsson

James Nilsson 1977
James Nilsson, 1977

James W. Nilsson, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor Emeritus for the Iowa State Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, passed away December 26, 2015 at Green Hills Health Care Center. He was 91.

Nilsson, one of the most prominent and celebrated teachers in ECpE annals, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa (1948), and his master’s (1952) and Ph.D. (1958) at Iowa State. He joined the ISU faculty as an Instructor in 1948 and was promoted to associate professor (1952), professor (1962), and Anson Marston Distinguished Professor (1984).

“His contributions to the department through the years were enormous,” said David C. Jiles, Palmer Endowed Department Chair of ECpE and Anson Marston Distinguished Professor. “The department’s legacy as an educator of successful engineers was built by faculty like Jim Nilsson.”

Nilsson was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1990 and earned the IEEE undergraduate teaching award for inspirational teaching in 1992. Nilsson won the student vote for ECpE’s annual professor of the year award five times. No other faculty member won more than twice.

“He was everyone’s favorite teacher,” said Thomas Scott, associate professor emeritus of ECpE. “He contracted exams which were so clearly fair that, when he gave a student a low grade, the student just accepted it.”

Scott also recalls Nilsson’s uncanny accuracy in front of a classroom.

“In that era we wrote on chalkboards. He covered the board time after time without ever needing to make a correction. That was amazing.”

Nilsson wrote several electrical and computer engineering textbooks, including Electric Circuits (1983), which gained world-wide acceptance and use. The fourth edition of Electric Circuits earned Nilsson an award for outstanding contributions to publisher, Addison-Wesley, one of the world’s leading technical publishing houses. While the book has evolved to meet diverse learning styles, the underlying pedagogical approaches remain constant and relevant. The book is currently in its 10th edition.

“[He] was a superb teacher and a person of great integrity,” said Arthur Pohm, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor Emeritus of ECpE. “His text book on circuits probably brought more recognition to the department than any other activity in the department during his tenure. If I may borrow from a movie title, he was a man for all seasons; he was a stellar faculty member who brought acclaim to Iowa State.”

James Nilsson 1969. Photographer: Perry
James Nilsson 1969. Photographer: Perry

Nilsson will be remembered as one of the important and beloved pioneers of the ECpE Department. His students, including Richard Horton, who became a fellow faculty member upon graduation, remember him as a master teacher, a mentor, and a role model who listened to his students.

Kenneth Kruempel, associate professor emeritus and ECpE alum, has fond memories of Nilsson’s receptiveness.

“He was always very open to ideas for changes, corrections, and additions to the current edition of his books,” Kruempel said. “I would routinely ask students in the class for their suggestions and concerns, and then give them to Jim. He would always consider them and often use them for revisions in the textbook.”

Although Nilsson retired from teaching in 1987, he continued to impact those around him. To date, Electric Circuits has influenced the engineering education of tens of thousands of electrical engineers worldwide and is the most widely used introductory circuits textbook of the past 25 years. Through his teaching and contributions to the field, Nilsson’s legacy at Iowa State and in the field of electrical engineering will continue to be recognized for years to come.