Gordon Brown, pioneer electrical engineer, educator at MIT, dies at 88

In retirement, brought system dynamics and computers to Tucson public schools


TUCSON, Ariz.--Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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, Ariz. Dr. Brown, a former resident of Concord, Mass., and Grantham, N.H., would have been 89 on Aug. 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 U.S. military on land, at sea and in the air.

He was also known for his leadership in the modernization of engineering education. The innovations he spearheaded at MIT as dean of the School of Engineering from 1959 to 1968 spread beyond the campus to have worldwide influence on the teaching of electrical engineering and other engineering disciplines.

"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 MIT 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 today.

In remarks he made in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of MIT's Servomechanisms 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 was forever ready to do battle with self-appointed guardians of the past. 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, Ariz.

The field of system dynamics, which grew out of feedback concepts pioneered in Dr. Brown's Servomechanisms Laboratory, deals with the feedback dynamics of social and natural as well as physical systems.

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 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.

"The ideas took hold," Dr. Forrester said. "The classroom was transformed." Dr. Brown then negotiated with Apple Computer for a gift of $100,000 worth of computers for the same teacher's classroom. He then brought in the principal of the junior high and finally the superintendent of the school system, the school board and parents, to witness the results of the new approach.

Soon the systems approach spread to other subjects and schools in the district, Dr. Forrester said, becoming a "common foundation that can underlie physical science, social studies, biology, environmental; issues, history and a student's own personal life experiences."

Dr. Forrester said Dr. Brown told him he had been having "more fun in this local school effort than ever before in his career. His vitality, pioneering, dedication to change and concern for others had survived nearly two decades past retirement."

A Catalina Foothills science teacher, Frank Draper, said Dr. Brown brought to the school system in 1988 "his wealth of knowledge, experience and an amazing ability to open doors." A year later, "he had secured a critical meeting with Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow and had arranged a meeting with the Waters Foundation" of Framingham, Mass. Both organizations made major commitments to the school district. "Without the foresight, leadership and spirit of Dr. Brown, none of this would have been possible," Mr. Draper said today.

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 degree in electrical engineering in 1931. As a graduate student, he served as a research assistant and instructor in electrical engineering, receiving the SM degree in 1934 and ScD in 1938. He was appointed an assistant professor in 1939, associate professor in 1941 and full professor in 1946. He had become a naturalized American citizen in 1939.

Dr. Brown's doctoral thesis was on what was called the cinema integraph (because it employed motion picture film), a precursor of the analog computer. Having early 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.

After the World War II, the Whirlwind computer became part of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and Lincoln's all-important development of the SAGE system of air defense for the North American continent.

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 the early 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 in fundamental sciences such as physics and mathematics and bringing about basic change in the department's educational approaches and philosophy. These changes soon were to be taken as models to be followed at leading electrical engineering schools throughout the nation and abroad.

Later, when he became dean of MIT's 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.

Still another dimension of Dr. Brown's tenure as dean of engineering was his push for international cooperation and the transfer of technology to other societies. He led MIT's participation in international educational relationships by establishing MIT interactions with institutions in India and Singapore and with the Technical University of Berlin.

Dr. Brown continued as dean of engineering until 1968 when he became the first holder of the Dugald Caleb Jackson Professorship, named for the man who was head of the MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering when Dr. Brown arrived as an undergraduate. In 1973, Dr. Brown was further honored by his appointment as Institute Professor, a rank MIT reserves for its most distinguished faculty members.

In announcing Dr. Brown's selection, then President Jerome B. Wiesner said, "Over a period of more than four decades, Dr. Brown has made numerous significant contributions that have shaped the development both of his profession and MIT. The power of his ideas and his achievements born of his relentless energy and innovative nature have had important impact on industry and on institutions of higher learning in this country and elsewhere in the world."

Dr. Brown, who had served as chairman of the MIT faculty in 1951 and 1952, retired in 1974 with the titles Institute Professor, Emeritus, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus. In 1985, an MIT building 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.

Dr. Brown 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, Ms. 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 can 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, Mass. 01773.


Topics: Obituaries

Back to the top