In Memory: CSL loses former researcher Dick Brown, a pioneer in digital computing

09/01/2009

Former CSL researcher Richard M. Brown died Saturday, August 22, at the Meadowbrook Health Center in Urbana. He was 85.

Former CSL researcher Dick Brown helped pioneer digital computer research, paving the way for the revolutionary CSX-1 computer and the ILLIAC IV, the first supercomputer.
Former CSL researcher Dick Brown helped pioneer digital computer research, paving the way for the revolutionary CSX-1 computer and the ILLIAC IV, the first supercomputer.

Born on May 17, 1924, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brown received his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees from Harvard College and then worked as an assistant professor at Washington State University. He joined the University of Illinois in 1952. After a brief return to Washington State, Brown spent the rest of his career as professor in electrical and computer engineering at Illinois and retired in 1984.

Brown worked in the Control Systems Laboratory (now the Coordinated Science Laboratory) when it was new to campus, helping to set a foundation for digital computer research. He was involved in the creation of such ground-breaking computers as the CSX-1 and the first supercomputer, the ILLIAC IV. PLATO, the first computer-assisted instruction system that helped to develop Internet concepts such as chat rooms and online testing, was helped by Brown’s research on teaching machines.

He was also instrumental in integrating the computer engineering curriculum into what was then the Department of Electrical Engineering, paving the way for what is now ECE.

Brown was involved with the High Energy Physics Group. Mike Haney, now a research engineer in the Department of Physics was a teaching assistant for Brown in 1978 for what is now ECE 290: Computer Engineering. Haney worked with Brown in the summer of 1980, developing the FASTBUS data acquisition architecture, later to become IEEE Std 960. Haney said all his memories of Brown are fond.

“Dick Brown was perpetually in good spirits, easy to talk to, and fiercely committed to teaching,” Haney said. “In and out of the class room, students were a priority to him.”

CSL researcher Dilip Sarwate taught ECE 290 with Brown and considered him vital to the computer engineering program’s survival in the 1970s.

“A capable, compassionate man of solid wisdom, and by far the senior-most of the three full professors teaching computer engineering courses in those days, he took all us new hires in computer engineering under his wing both academically, as well as socially,” Sarwate said. “I have fond memories of teaching ECE 290 very many times with Dick, and of learning from him how to organize and manage large-enrollment courses. This at a time when a class with 30 students was viewed as a large class in the department!”

In his first semester in the spring of 1981, CSL researcher Michael Loui met Brown. Loui taught discussion sections for ECE 290, and Brown was his teaching mentor.

“Although I had taken a course on digital systems as an undergraduate, I had never before studied computer interfacing or computer architecture,” said Loui. “So to survive the last half of ECE 290, I relied on Dick's lectures and explanations.”

Brown’s advice and course materials helped Loui model his own course syllabuses for ECE 312 (now ECE 411: Computer Organization and Design) and ECE 291 (now ECE 391: Computer Systems Engineering).

“He was a model professor: generous with ideas, gracious with advice, and intellectually curious about many subjects,” Loui said.