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Gordon S. Brown, pioneer electrical engineer and educator, is dead at 88

Institute Professor Emeritus Gordon S. Brown, a pioneer in electrical engineering, computers and engineering education, died Friday, Aug. 23 at his retirement home in Tucson, AZ. Dr. Brown, a former resident of Concord, MA, and Grantham, NH, would have been 89 on August 30.

His family said he died of complications resulting from cancer.

Dr. Brown was recognized internationally for his pioneering work in automatic feedback-control systems, computer technology and the numerical control of machine tools. During World War II, Dr. Brown and his colleagues developed automatic fire control and aiming systems for guns used by the US military on land, at sea and in the air.

He was also known for his leadership in the modernization of engineering education as dean of the School of Engineering from 1959 to 1968.

"Gordon Brown influenced the directions of engineering education in the past 50 years more than any other single person," said Professor Paul Penfield, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "Gordon's engineering science approach, stressing fundamental science, today forms the guiding principle behind most if not all engineering education, in all disciplines, at MIT and elsewhere."

Dr. Jay W. Forrester, Germeshausen Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT, and the inventor of core memory for computers as well as the field of system dynamics, served as a research assistant in Dr. Brown's laboratory. "He's been my mentor since 1940, the major influence on my career," Dr. Forrester said.

In remarks he made in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of MIT's Servo-mechanisms Laboratory, which Dr. Brown founded, Dr. Forrester said that Dr. Brown "always kept a close tie between theory, research and the real world. He continuously had the end result in mind.

"Gordon was always looking for ways to change and improve the human condition," Dr. Forrester added. "He frequently made the observation that `the only steady state is the steady state of change.'"

Dr. Brown did not lay aside his dedication to achieving change when he retired from MIT. In the 1980s-working with Professor Forrester and using system dynamics thinking and the feedback structure of all systems, whether physical, social or natural-he introduced a new basis and foundation for K-12 education in his local school system in Tucson.

In the Catalina Foothills school district where he lived in retirement, Dr. Brown, as described by Professor Forrester in his 1990 remarks, began creating "a revolution in education." He started in 1988 by loaning software to an eighth-grade teacher of biology in the Orange Grove Junior High School to demonstrate how feedback concepts could enter the classroom.

Dr. Brown then negotiated with Apple Computer for a gift of $100,000 worth of computers for the same teacher's classroom. He arranged a meeting with the Waters Foundation of Framingham, MA, which has been funding the project since 1989.

Dr. Brown was born in 1907 in Australia and, at the age of 18, graduated from what was then known as Workingman's College, now the Royal Melbourne Technical College, with three diplomas-in mechanical, electrical and civil engineering.

He entered MIT as a junior in 1929 on the strength of his college credits and received the SB in electrical engineering in 1931. As a graduate student, he served as a research assistant and instructor in electrical engineering, receiving the SM in 1934 and ScD in 1938.

He was appointed an assistant professor in 1939, associate professor in 1941 and full professor in 1946. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1939.

Cinema integraph

Dr. Brown's doctoral thesis focused on what was called the cinema integraph (because it employed motion picture film), a precursor of the analog computer. Having early on recognized the future for computers and automation, he founded the Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1940, where work was done that led to the development in the late 1940s of the first major digital computer, Whirlwind, which was used after World War II by Lincoln Laboratory to develop the SAGE system of air defense for North America.

The development of concepts of automatic control for machines and industrial processes resulted in numerical control and the Automatically Programmed Tool Language (APT), which revolutionized modern machine work worldwide and has had a profound and lasting effect on industry. The term numerical control was coined in the laboratory to describe the direct control of the motions of a physical device, such as a machine tool, by numerically coded signals in the form now common in digital computers.

Dr. Brown, as head of the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1952, launched a major program to restructure and revise the entire electrical engineering curriculum. He did this by basing the teaching more firmly than ever before on fundamental sciences such as physics and mathematics and bringing about basic change in the department's educational approaches and philosophy.

Later, when he became dean of the School of Engineering in 1959, Dr. Brown extended to other engineering departments the same principles of curriculum revision. To this task, however, he brought added zeal on behalf of the principle of interdepartmental, interdisciplinary research as contained in the idea of the "research center." The concept grew and, once again, technical and engineering schools worldwide reconfigured themselves in similar directions using the MIT experience as a model.

Dr. Brown continued as dean of engineering until 1968, when he became the first holder of the Dugald Caleb Jackson Professorship. In 1973, Dr. Brown was appointed Institute Professor. He retired in 1974.

In 1985, Building 39, housing the Microsystems Technology Laboratories, was named the Gordon Stanley Brown Building.

Dr. Brown was the author of more than 50 technical and professional papers and the co-author, with the late Donald P. Campbell, of Principles of Servomechanisms, published in 1948 and still a standard reference in the field.

He was a frequent consultant to industry and government. His honors included several honorary degrees, a President's Certificate of Merit, the George Westinghouse Award and the Lamme Medal of the American Society for Engineering Education, the Medal in Electrical Engineering Education from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Joseph Marie Jacquard Annual Memorial Award from the Numerical Control Society, the Rufus Oldenburger Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Robert Fletcher Award of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.

He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a life member of the American Society for Engineering Education and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Eminent Member of Eta Kappa Nu.

Dr. Brown and his wife, Jean (Alfred) Brown of Tucson, would have observed their 61st wedding anniversary on the day of his death. Besides his wife, he leaves a daughter, Sydney B. DeVore of Tucson, a son, Stanley A. Brown of Gaithersburg, MD (a 1965 MIT graduate), and two grandchildren, Samuel C. DeVore and Laurel I. DeVore.

Two memorial services are planned, one at a Catalina Foothills school in Tucson and one at MIT. The dates will be announced. Dr. Brown's body will be cremated.

Donations may be made to the Gordon Stanley Brown Fund, administered by the System Dynamics Society, to promote system dynamics teaching in schools and to pay K-12 teachers during the summer to write up the work they have done using the system dynamics approach. Contributions should be addressed to Alexander Pugh, treasurer, System Dynamics Society, 49 Bedford Rd., Lincoln, MA 01773.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 28, 1996.

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