Gordon S. Brown '31
Institute Professor Emeritus Gordon S. Brown '31, a pioneer in electrical engineering who later in life worked to bring computers into education, died Friday at his retirement home in Tucson, Arizona.
Brown died of complications resulting from cancer. He was 81.
Brown, who served as dean of the School of Engineering from 1959 to 1968, was renowned for his work in automatic feedback-control systems, computer technology, and the numerical control of machine tools. During World War II, he worked to develop automatic fire control and aiming systems for guns used by the U.S. military.
"Gordon Brown influenced the directions of engineering education in the past 50 years more than any other single person," said Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Paul L. Penfield Jr. ScD '60, chair of the Department of EECS.
In 1940, Brown founded the Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT 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 the Lincoln Laboratory and its development of the SAGE system of air defense for North America.
The field of system dynamics, which grew out of feedback concepts pioneered in the Servomechanisms Laboratory, deals with the feedback dynamics of social and natural as well as physical systems.
Brown puts computers in education
Brown positioned himself as a leader in the modernization of engineering education later in his life.
In a local school district in Tucson where he lived during his retirement, Brown began the movement to put computers in education, the work that he would become famous for in his later years. He started by loaning software to an eighth-grade teacher of biology in a local junior high school to demonstrate how feedback concepts could enter the classroom.
Brown then negotiated with Apple Computer, Inc., for a gift of $100,000 worth of computers for the same teacher's classroom. He then brought in the school principal and superintendent.
It was the first time that the teachers had seen 12- to14-year-old students ask at the end of the class if they could stay after school or come in early to continue their projects.
Brown was an innovator in education during his time at MIT as well. As head of the Department of EECS in the early 1950s, Brown launched a program to restructure and revise the entire electrical engineering curriculum. He worked to base teaching more firmly in fundamental sciences like physics and mathematics.
Later, when he became dean of the School of Engineering, Brown extended to other engineering departments the same principles of curriculum revision and pushed toward interdisciplinary research.
Brown, who served as chair of the faculty in 1951 and 1952, retired in 1974.
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 his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1931. As a graduate student, he served as a research assistant and received a master of science degree in 1934 and doctorate of science in 1938.
Brown was appointed an assistant professor in 1939, associate professor in 1941, full professor in 1946, and Institute Professor in 1973.
Brown and his wife, Jean Alfred Brown of Tucson, would have observed their 61st wedding anniversary on the day of his death. Brown also leaves a daughter, Sydney B. DeVore of Tucson, a son, Stanley A. Brown '65, and two grandchildren, Samuel C. DeVore and Laurel I. DeVore.
Memorial services will be held at a school in Tucson and at at MIT. The dates will be announced.