Gordon Stanley Brown
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As an electrical engineer and an educator, Gordon Stanley Brown developed the field of servomechanics and reshaped the modern university curriculum for engineering.
Brown was born near Sydney, Australia in 1907. His father, who emigrated from England, worked in the Australian federal civil service. When Brown was six, his father moved the family to the remote community of Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where he served as paymaster for workers building a transcontinental railroad. A subsequent federal assignment took Brown’s family to what was then Australia’s capital, Melbourne, in 1917. Brown excelled in the city’s public technical school, believing that his training gave him the means to build this young nation. He was first in his class and then spent an additional two years at Workingman’s College (now called the Royal Melbourne Technical College) where, by age eighteen, he had earned three diplomas in mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering.
He chose to pursue a career in electrical engineering and got a job with the Victoria State Electricity Commission in 1926. Beginning as a draftsman, he soon obtained a promotion that put him in the field. Among the Commission’s tasks was converting the existing makeshift electrical generators built in outlying areas from direct to alternating current. In his early twenties, Brown traveled around the countryside to determine what equipment the state would have to supply to modernize the electrical system.
Brown’s success drew the attention of his supervisors, who encouraged him to travel abroad to take a “test course” at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Major electrical manufacturers offered these training courses to young engineers to better equip developing nations to use their products. On arriving in the United States, Brown decided to delay the Westinghouse course and finish his college education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Brown enrolled at MIT as a junior in the fall of 1929 and earned his S.B. degree in 1931, receiving training and mentorship from Harold E. Edgerton, Vannevar Bush, Harold Hazen, and Truman S. Gray. He returned to Australia to resume work at the State Electricity Commission and continue his graduate studies at the University of Melbourne, but discovered that its admissions officers would not award him credit for work done at MIT, claiming that it “was not a true university.” So he came back to MIT, earning his S.M. degree in 1934 and Sc.D degree in 1938.
Brown developed the research agenda for his early academic career during his graduate studies at MIT. With Harold Hazen, he wrote his S.M. thesis on amplifiers and servomotors. This research would fold into Brown’s dissertation on the cinema integraph. After obtaining his doctorate, he was appointed assistant professor at MIT and, in 1939, founded the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory, which he directed until 1952.
The Servomechanics Laboratory created automatic control systems for military and industrial purposes. During World War II, Brown and his colleagues trained naval officers in servomechanics and designed automatic fire control and aiming systems for guns used by the American military. After the war, the Laboratory developed the Whirlwind, the first real-time high-speed digital computer using random-access magnetic-core memory, which MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory used to develop the SAGE system of air defense. Brown’s team also applied their research to industrial processes, automating machine tools through numerical control and the Automatically Programmed Tool Language (APT). He co-authored, with Donald P. Campbell, Principles of Servomechanisms in 1948.
In 1952, Brown became head of the electrical engineering department at MIT and fundamentally revised its curriculum, emphasizing core sciences like physics and mathematics and rethinking the program’s philosophy. According to MIT’s Paul Penfield, “Gordon Brown influenced the direction of engineering education in the past 50 years more than any other single person.” His approach to the training of electrical engineers was soon adopted as a model nationally.
Upon becoming Dean of the School of Engineering in 1959, Brown encouraged other MIT departments to revise their curricula and pursue interdisciplinary projects. He viewed MIT as a research center where specialists from different departments could collaborate on technical problems. In addition to promoting an interdisciplinary research model, Brown built up the university’s international reputation and its outreach to universities in developing nations.
Brown continued to serve as Dean of Engineering until 1968, when he was chosen for an endowed chair. He became Institute Professor in 1973 and retired with the title Institute Professor Emeritus in 1974. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees during his long career at MIT and served in many advisory roles in the engineering community and with the public sector, including director-at-large of the IEEE and founding member of the commission on Engineering Education of the National Academy of Engineering.
“Gordon S. Brown, pioneer electrical engineer and educator, is dead at 88,” MIT Tech Talk, August 28, 1996.
Karl L. Wildes and Nilo A. Lindgren, A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at MIT, 1882-1982 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).
J.A.N. Lee, “Gordon S. Brown,” IEEE Computer Society (1995)
Robert M. Byers, Sr., “Dedication of the Gordon Stanley Brown Building: Brown Biography,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 6, 1985.