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Brad Petersen
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2052 ECE Building
306 N. Wright Street
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 244-6376
bradp@illinois.edu

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Meg Dickinson
Communications Specialist
2016 ECE Building
306 N. Wright Street
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 300-6664
megd@illinois.edu

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Professor Emeritus Richard M. Brown, 1924-2009

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By Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS
September 1, 2009

  • ECE Professor Emeritus Richard M. Brown died Saturday, August 22, in Urbana at 85.
  • Brown worked in the Control Systems Laboratory when it was new to campus, helping to set a foundation for digital computer research.
  • He helped integrate computer engineering into what was then the Department of Electrical Engineering, paving the way for what is now ECE.

Richard M. Brown
Richard M. Brown

ECE Professor Emeritus Richard M. Brown died Saturday, August 22, at the Meadowbrook Health Center in Urbana. He was 85.

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 at Illinois and retired in 1984.

Brown worked in the Control Systems 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.”

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

“Professor Richard Brown was instrumental in nurturing the fledgling Computer Engineering program and ensuring its survival during the 1970s,” said Sarwate. “A capable, compassionate man of solid wisdom, and by far the seniormost of the three full professors teaching computer engineering courses in those days, he took all us new hires in computer engineering under his wing, not just academically but socially as well. 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 thirty students was viewed as a large class in the Department!”

In his first semester in the spring of 1981, ECE Professor 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.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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