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William C. Brown

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Biography

Born: 22 May 1916
Died: 03 February 1999

William C. Brown was a pioneer in the use of microwaves. His ideas encompassed everything from beaming electric power from point to point without wires, to vacuum tubes and solar-power satellites.

Brown was born on an Iowa farm on 22 May 1916. As a high school student, he won first place in Iowa in the prestigious Fisher Body Competition. Sponsored by the Fisher Automobile Body Company, the competition encouraged young people to hone their craft skills. While little-known today, the Fisher Body competition was once a major event.

After high school, Brown went on to study at Iowa State University in Ames, earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering in 1937. Upon graduation he was hired by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Camden, New Jersey as a trainee. At RCA, Brown became interested in high-power vacuum tubes. However, in 1939, a scholarship offer made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lured him back to school. His time at MIT was cut short, however, when Brown took a job at a new company located near Boston called Raytheon (now one of the world’s largest defense contractors). Returning to tube research, Brown soon became the head of Raytheon’s magnetron tube department. By 1953, he had invented (among other things) a new type of tube based on the magnetron called the Amplitron. Unlike the magnetron, which was merely an oscillator (or generator of microwaves), the Amplitron could amplify a broad band of microwave frequencies as well. The Amplitron (later called the Cross Field Amplifier) had a long and successful career in military and space communication.

Under military sponsorship, Brown modified the Amplitron to greatly increase its power output. The strength of the output led him to begin to think seriously about using microwave technology to transmit power, rather than using it for radar or communication. Wireless power transmission had been suggested by Nikola Tesla and others, but dismissed as being impractical because electricity at low frequencies is wasted as it flows through the atmosphere. However, at high frequencies that flow is more efficient. Brown spent much of the rest of his career trying to develop applications for this idea.

By improving devices to transmit and receive high power microwave energy, Brown was able to demonstrate a model of an electric helicopter in 1964, which was powered by a microwave beam transmitted from the ground. Then, in 1968, Peter Glaser proposed a solar-power satellite that would collect solar energy in space, convert it to microwaves, and beam it down to the surface of the earth where it could be collected and used for power. Brown set to work trying to develop the idea into a practical reality. Although this idea, like many others he worked on, did not immediately result in the adoption of wireless power transmission, he continued to promote the idea for many years. Brown died 3 February 1999.