Remembering James Brittain, Professor of the History of Science and Technology

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Rebecca Keane
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Ivan Allen College Communications just recently learned of the passing of James E. “Jim” Brittain, who died March 8, 2018.

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Ivan Allen College Communications just recently learned of the passing of James E. “Jim” Brittain, who died March 8, 2018.

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Ivan Allen College Communications just recently learned of the passing of James E. “Jim” Brittain, who died March 8, 2018.

Originally educated in electrical engineering, Brittain earned a second master’s and a doctoral degree in the developing field of the history of science and technology. He came to Georgia Tech in September 1969, teaching mainly electrical technology. He retired as professor emeritus on June 30, 1994.

Robert McMath, a former history professor in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and executive administrator at Georgia Tech who is currently dean of the Honors College of the University of Arkansas, shared his memories of Dr. Brittain.

“I came to Tech three years after Jim, and we quickly became close friends and colleagues," McMath said. "I had lost touch with him in recent years and was saddened to hear of his death, but thankful for the memories of a remarkable man." 

Brittain, along with department chair Pat Kelly and others, created a teaching and research focus on technology and the social sciences, including history, in what was then the Department of Social Sciences. This was at a time when there were no degree programs or even academic concentrations at Tech in any field of the humanities and social sciences other than economics. Jim was also instrumental in recruiting the “father” of the history of technology, Melvyn Kranzberg, to come to Tech in 1972 as the Callaway Professor. 

"I was also recruited to Tech in 1972, in my case to teach American History, including courses in the History of the South, and Jim made a point of helping me get acclimated," McMath said. "We found a meeting point between our interests through the history of technology in southern communities. This led to a course grandly entitled 'Industrial Archeology,' which involved traipsing around in the woods of North Georgia with groups of students exploring remains of technological sites. It also led us to write an article on the founding and early years of Tech for the journal Technology and Culture.  That article led a book-length history of Tech by the two of us, plus colleagues Gerry Reed, Ron Bayor, Gus Giebelhaus, and Larry Foster, entitled Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech, 1885-1985.   

As befitted a son of the western North Carolina mountains, Jim was a quiet person who chose his words carefully, but when he spoke people listened.  Not many academicians have the combination of intellectual rigor and imagination along with thoughtfulness and kindness that Jim possessed.  We miss him."

Giebelhaus also shared his memories. He was on faculty from 1976-2009 and is professor emeritus in the School of History and Sociology.

“I will be brief but am tempted to write quite a bit about this wonderful and most interesting man,” Giebelhaus said. "Jim Brittain was an outstanding example of one of the categories of scholar who came together to comprise the relatively new formal field of the history of technology that emerged in the 1950s. This is a group of folks who originally trained in a particular technical field of engineering or science, developed a great interest in the history of that field, and took the next step of engaging in formal training in historical studies.

Jim worked in electronics in the military, earned a B.S. (Clemson) and then a M.S. (Tennessee) in electrical engineering, and then a masters and Ph.D. in the history of technology (Case Western Reserve University). 

Jim became a key faculty member at Georgia Tech in establishing undergraduate courses in the history of technology and was central in luring Melvin Kranzberg from Case to assume the Callaway Professorship at Georgia Tech, a critical milestone for the maturing of the social sciences on The Flats.

Jim was a quiet and unassuming man who earned the respect of his colleagues through his tireless work.  His original research and writing within the field of electrical and electronic history, his solid record of classroom teaching, and his many, many years of leadership in furthering historical studies within the IEEE are testimony to his accomplishments.  I personally worked closely with Jim in a number of areas including the editorship of the journal Technology and Culture, the writing of the 1985 Tech centennial history, "Engineering the New South," and in developing undergraduate and graduate curricula in the social sciences and the history of technology in particular, as new degree programs evolved at Georgia Tech.

Jim Brittain was a true Southern gentleman and a teacher and scholar of great importance."

Read more at https://insight.ieeeusa.org/articles/jim-brittain/

Dr. James Edward (Jim) Brittain Obituary: https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/james-brittain-obituary?pid=188417093

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, School of History and Sociology

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James Brittain, HSOC, History and Sociology, deceased
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  • Created By: Rebecca Keane
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Jan 3, 2020 - 6:27pm
  • Last Updated: Jan 6, 2020 - 1:03pm