Gordon Brown was a professor of Electrical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an authority on servomechanisms – automatic feedback control systems – and their application to emerging computer technologies. He was born in 1907 in Australia, and graduated with degrees in engineering from MIT in 1931 and 1938, after which he became an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the school. In 1973, he was made an Institute Professor at MIT, a title reserved for the most distinguished faculty members. He was also a prominent figure in attempts to modernize engineering education after the Second World War, instituting a number of curriculum changes that reoriented education from engineering practice to engineering science. Over the years, he was also a member of the boards of directors of several large corporations. Throughout his career he received numerous awards, including the American Society of Engineering Education’s George Westinghouse Award and Benjamin Garver Lamme Award. He died in 1996.

Brown’s lecture was a part of a series on “Freedom and Responsibility in Contemporary Society.” He discussed the increasing demands on universities to be models of integrity and look outward and forward to take on an active public service role. While typical understandings of engineers described their ‘exploitation’ of science for the ‘benefit’ of mankind, Brown suggested that we needed to understand the engineer at work as forging technology, political, social, and economic change. Engineering education must adjust to the broad view of social problems that young engineers will have to face and recognize that technological problems could not be solved without social and political considerations. Therefore, engineers must learn more than math and science: like a doctor needed to know all parts of the body to prescribe medicine, engineers must know all parts of society, so that they know how to apply technology to solve its problems. This interdisciplinarity would be a difficult challenge for universities to navigate, but Brown argued there was no option but to face up to these complications. He suggested a reorientation of engineering talent away from producing more and more goods, to solving pressing problems. The engineering community needed to “feed on life itself,” rather than becoming completely industrialized.

Listen to Brown’s lecture below.

Gordon Brown delivers his Dunning Trust lecture.
The brochure for Brown’s lecture.
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