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National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Copyright2002
ISBN978-0-309-08457-4
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

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  • GORDON S.BROWN
    
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             GORDON S.BROWN                                            35
    
                            GORDON S.BROWN
    
    
                                      1907–1996
    
             WRITTEN BY J.FRANCIS REINTJES SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME
                                     SECRETARY
    
                GORDON STANLEY BROWN ranks high among the great contributors to
            engineering and engineering education in the twentieth century. Born in Australia
            in 1907, he enrolled as a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
            1929 after having received diplomas in mechanical, electrical, and civil
            engineering at what is now the Royal Melbourne Technical College in his native
            country. He received the S.B. degree in electrical engineering at MIT in 1931 and
            the Sc.D. degree in 1938, after which he was appointed assistant professor of
            electrical engineering at MIT. He spent his entire career at the institute, rising
            through the professorial ranks to full professor in 1946. He was honored in 1973
            by his appointment as Institute Professor, a title reserved for only a few of the
            institute’s most distinguished faculty members.
                Dr. Brown’s early academic efforts included the development of a course on
            servomechanisms, a newly emerging discipline within electrical engineering and a
            technology that would play an important role in the design of automatic fire-
            control systems during World War II and beyond. His book Principles
            ofServomechanisms, coauthored with Donald P.Campbell and published in 1948,
            was an outgrowth of his classroom subject. It was a seminal piece of work on
            linear feedback control and a widely used textbook for several years following
            the war.
    
    
                 
    
    
             GORDON S.BROWN                                            36
    
                Recognizing the future of feedback control and computers and the need for
            research in these fields, he founded MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1940.
            Through his leadership, several important projects emerged, including research on
            automatic fire-control systems, the Whirlwind computer project led by Professor
            Jay Forrester, the automatic control system for the Brookhaven nuclear reactor
            (the first peacetime nuclear reactor in the world), and the numerically controlled
            machine-tool project, a revolutionary technology that merged computers and
            servomechanisms with machine tools and redirected the future of the machine-
            tool industry. For his laboratory’s work on numerical control, Dr. Brown shared,
            with William Pease and James McDonough, the 1970 Joseph Marie Jacquard
            Award of the Numerical Control Society, a professional society that was the
            direct outgrowth of Servo Lab’s digital machine-tool research.
                Dr. Brown will be remembered for his leadership in modernizing post World
            War II engineering education. When he became head of the electrical engineering
            department in 1952, major curriculum changes in his department’s programs were
            already being planned, changes that would recognize new technologies that had
            emerged from the war effort and would have a major impact on the future of the
            profession. Dr. Brown immediately turned plans into action. His vision of
            postwar under-graduate engineering education was that it should emphasize
            engineering principles and be based on a solid foundation of science and
            mathematics. Engineering science rather than state-of-the-art engineering practice
            was his model for post World War II engineering education. He believed
            students’ education should serve them in good stead for many years after
            graduation and an electrical science background was a prerequisite. Accordingly,
            he eliminated outmoded classroom subjects and replaced them with relevant
            ones; outdated academic laboratories were updated or eliminated if they no
            longer conformed to his model; and new textbooks were written not only to
            solidify internal changes but to assist other schools as they, too, began to cope
            with change.
                Dr. Brown’s appointment as dean of engineering in 1959 enabled him to
            extend his visionary ideas to other engineering
    
    
                 
    
    
             GORDON S.BROWN                                            37
    
             disciplines both within and beyond MIT. The world was now his horizon. To
             expound his views, he published many papers on education, conferred with his
             friends in industry, and convened meetings of faculty members from other
             engineering schools to exchange ideas and to refine his thoughts. During the
             1960s he catalyzed engineering-curriculum modernization abroad by establishing
             a faculty exchange program with the Technical University of Berlin and setting
             up interactions between MIT faculty members and faculty members at
             universities in India and Singapore.
                Dr. Brown was a strong proponent of interdepartmental, interdisciplinary
             research that brings together faculty members from several departments and
             disciplines to work on problems of common interest in a research center. His
             success in developing several such centers at MIT was recognized to the extent
             that the concept of interdisciplinary research centers prevails at many research
             universities throughout the world.
                By no means were Dr. Brown’s activities confined to the ivory tower of
             academia. His outside activities included service to governmental, educational,
             and industrial organizations. During the war years, he was a consultant to the
             National Defense Research Council and the War Department. For these services
             he was awarded the President’s Certificate of Merit and a certificate for
            Distinguished Service to Naval Ordnance Development. He was also a member
            of the board of overseers of Dartmouth College’s Thayer School and a director-
            at-large of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and its
            predecessor organization the Institute of Radio Engineers. Over the years, he was
            also a member of the boards of directors of several large corporations.
                After his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1965, Dr.
            Brown served as a member of its Committee on Public Engineering Policy.
                During his career, Dr. Brown received many living tributes to his
            accomplishments. The citations that accompanied his honors and awards were
            like steppingstones to greatness, as each sought to capture the essence of his
            achievements. Early recognition came in 1952 when he received the American
            Society of
    
    
                 
    
    
             GORDON S.BROWN                                            38
    
             Engineering Education’s (ASEE) George Westinghouse Award “for invaluable
            work in the development of the science of automatic control.” Then came
            ASEE’s Benjamin Garver Lamme Award for “his untiring efforts to advance
            professional education in engineering,” and a similar citation for the Medal in
            Electrical Engineering Education from the American Institute of Electrical
            Engineers (AIEE). Accolades continued as the AIEE and the American Academy
            of Arts and Sciences elected him a fellow, and as he received honorary degrees
            from Purdue and Southern Methodist universities, Dartmouth College, Stevens
            Institute of Technology, and the Technical University of Denmark.
                Dr. Brown’s style as a leader in research and education was invariant. For
            each undertaking, he would put together a team of bright young faculty members,
            staff, and students who were eager to tackle tough new problems. After ensuring
            that they understood what the goal was, he would give them free rein to do the
            job. Along the way, he would be their mentor, strong supporter, and constructive
            critic, but most important, upon completion of the job, he would give them full
            credit for a job well done. It is little wonder, then, that his coworkers had deep
            respect and strong admiration for him.
                An eternal optimist, Dr. Brown always looked for the one positive reason
            why something could be done, while ignoring the ninety-nine reasons why it
            could not. He was impatient with those who resisted change; in his mind those
            who chose to stand still had already taken two steps backward. His hallmark
            expression was: “the only steady state is the steady state of change.”
                His penchant for change continued even into retirement. Upon taking up
            retirement residence in Tucson, Arizona, he and his colleague Professor Forrester
            worked with the local school system to introduce a new kind of thinking in
            grades K-12 education. Dr. Brown negotiated a gift of classroom computers and
            funding to train teaching staff and to carry out experiments in the application of
            feedback and systems dynamics to physical, natural, and social systems. Building
            on this initial demonstration, many schools are now pioneering further
    
    
                 
    
    
             GORDON S.BROWN                                            39
    
             advancements in system dynamics as a foundation for precollege education.
                Gordon Brown died on August 23, 1996, a week short of his eighty-ninth
             birthday. He was a man who was deeply devoted to his family, to his wife, Jean,
             their son and daughter, and their grandchildren. He was their staunch supporter
             and wise counselor. They and all who knew Dr. Brown and were influenced by
             him will long remember him.
    
    
                 
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