Trees flower outside Widener Library.

Trees flower outside Widener Library.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Roger Ware Brockett, 84

6 min read

Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 7, 2024, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Roger Ware Brockett was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

With the passing of Roger Brockett, An Wang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emeritus, engineering lost one of its last great polymaths and the University lost a prime mover in revitalizing its engineering program.

Brockett studied systems — a whole made up of parts that work together, such as an airplane, a human body, an electric circuit with batteries and capacitors, or a flock of animals.  He changed the way we think about controlling systems to do things — how to land an airplane, how to button a shirt, how to corral a hundred sheep.  Early in his career he wrote an influential textbook on linear systems, in which the rule is, roughly speaking, that twice as much action causes twice as much reaction.  He went on to create the far more widely applicable field of nonlinear control from mathematics not previously used in control theory, such as differential geometry and Lie algebras.  His 62 Ph.D. students — and 629 academic descendants at last count — in turn have shaped a remarkable range of subfields and application domains.  For his contributions, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was recognized with his field’s highest honors, among them the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Control Systems Award and the distinguished Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award given by the American Automatic Control Council.

Brockett was born Oct. 22, 1938, in rural Ohio.  The youngest of seven children, he worked on his father’s turkey farm.  Starting at age 12, he would rise early to drive his mother to her job as a schoolteacher before returning to help with chores, clean up, and head to school himself.  “Don’t play with electricity while we’re out,” his mother plaintively cautioned; he did anyway and also shared in his brother’s farmyard chemical mischief, while keeping the tractor and other farm machinery working.  He was a good football player and a mediocre math student before heading to Case Western Reserve University’s Institute of Technology, where his curiosity blossomed and where he stayed on to earn a Ph.D.  After six years on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moved to Harvard and, together with Yu-Chi Larry Ho, created the nation’s most influential tiny program in Harvard’s “Decision and Control” area of study.

Brockett loved mathematics for what it could do, and beautiful mathematics could do the most.  He wrote “truth and beauty” on the blackboard underneath particularly elegant results.  But mathematics was not his only tool.  He drew inspiration from across his broad scientific knowledge — from biology, physics, chemistry, computation, and quantum mechanics.  He was intellectually fearless and taught his students to be the same.  A lined pad he used at home was covered with equations, with just two words repeated and scattered across the page, “try” and “hope” — try a different approach and hope it works and, if not, then try another.  His results brought not merely satisfaction but surprise — using analog mathematics to solve combinatorial problems or connecting thermodynamics to stochastic control.

All the while, Brockett never lost his love of gadgetry or his drive to make things work.  In the early 1980s, there were robots that could assemble a thousand-pound truck chassis, but none that could pick up a penny.  So Brockett founded the Harvard Robotics Laboratory to build a soft-fingered robot, an initiative that spawned a major research subfield.

Brockett loved Harvard for the excellence of its community across disciplines, and he loved the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) — or the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics, as it was previously known — because its small size made collisions between disciplines inevitable.  But a couple of decades after moving upstream to Harvard from MIT, he wondered why more students weren’t inspired to study the marvels of engineering.  Enrollments in other science fields were strong, but Harvard was graduating only handfuls of engineers.  The problem, Brockett realized, was that Harvard engineering had become a place where machines were to be studied, not built.  Students had to learn multivariable calculus before they were allowed to touch a screwdriver.  There was no hands-on first year course where students could marry the tactile joy of making things that work with the intellectual rush of understanding why.  So in the late 1980s he created Engineering Sciences 51, a “course in the design and construction of mechanical and electromechanical devices.”  Now students could follow the full creative arc, from imagining a machine to seeing, feeling, and hearing it go clickety-clack.  The result was a resurgence in engineering not seen at Harvard since Charles William Eliot declared that the practical should rarely even be mentioned at a proper college.

Brockett never lost his midwestern-ness — the characteristic vowels, kindness, and directness.  He expected both hard work and integrity from his students and had limited patience for obfuscation.  He would not hesitate to interrupt speakers during their second lecture slide or to challenge a student who seemed to be searching for the right memorized formula rather than thinking about the question itself.

Brockett had high standards for quality of mind, but he made his students colleagues rather than trainees.  He was generous but not indulgent with them, and his mentoring continued throughout their careers.  He counseled students always to love what they did — even if no one else did.  One measure of his devotion to them is the number of calls he got while working with students at the office, having lost track of time — dinner was on the table at home, and his beloved family wanted to see him, too.

Brockett died March 19, 2023, and is survived by his widow, Carolann, who came from a neighboring town in Ohio and to whom he was married for 62 years; their sons, Douglas and Erik; and seven grandchildren, two named Roger in his honor.

Respectfully submitted,
Yu-Chi Larry Ho
Robert D. Howe
Yue M. Lu
Harry R. Lewis, Chair