Wright, William (1918–85), professor of civil engineering, was born 3 December 1918 in Stewarton, Ayrshire (Strathclyde), Scotland, son of James Wright, presbyterian minister; his mother's name is not known. He received his early education at Inverness Royal Academy and George Watson's College before serving an apprenticeship in civil engineering with the LMS railway and the ministry of transport (1935–9). In 1938 he began a degree in civil engineering at Glasgow University only to be interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war, during which he served as a captain in the Royal Engineers in Italy, Germany, and the Middle East (1939–46). On his return to Glasgow, he finished his degree with first-class honours (1946–9) and was soon appointed lecturer in civil engineering at Aberdeen University (1949–54), where he also completed his doctorate (1952). He then moved to the University of Southampton, where he worked as a senior lecturer and head of department (1954–7) until he permanently relocated to Dublin to assume the chair of engineering at TCD (1957–85).
When he arrived, the engineering department was mainly oriented towards civil engineering, so he immediately set about broadening the curriculum and expanding research and teaching facilities to ensure that the school did not fall behind the standards of other universities. He introduced courses in production and electronics (1961) and in computer science (1966), making him one of the first people in Ireland to promote these budding technologies. In 1963 he founded the graduate school of engineering studies, and he later successfully opposed the merger of TCD's engineering department with that of UCD (1969). The university's computer management committee was formed in 1968 with Wright as chairman (1968–85), and he was responsible for introducing the first digital computer to the college. He raised the requisite £10,000 through a donation from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and a loan from the college, which he ensured was repaid within five years; the new computer was officially launched by the minister for education on 9 January 1969. Under his administration the school was continuously strengthened and expanded: the syllabus was broadened, the number of staff grew from five to fifty, and there was an enormous increase in the number of students. By 1979, when the government called for a dramatic upsurge in technological manpower, the department of engineering, thanks in no small part to Wright, was more than able to meet the challenge.
Throughout his long career at TCD (MA (1960); Sc.D. (1963)), he served as dean of the faculty of mathematical and engineering sciences (1967–76), was elected a fellow (1959) and senior fellow (1981), and sat on the college board and university council. He was president of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland (1977) and served on many of its committees. His personal research interests lay in structural analysis and hydraulic models, and on such topics he wrote numerous articles for UK and American journals. He lived for a time at 35 Palmerston Road in Rathmines, Dublin. ‘The Prof,’ as he was affectionately and respectfully known by his staff and students, died 8 February 1985.
He married first (1944) Mildred (d. 1959), daughter of James Robertson. They had two sons and one daughter, Professor Jane Grimson, who was the first female graduate of TCD's department of engineering (1970) and became vice-provost of the college. He married secondly (1961) Barbara, daughter of W. Edward Robinson; she became a professor in the department of French at TCD. They had one son.