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Gene F. Franklin, professor emeritus of Electrical Engineering, dies at 85

He authored three highly respected textbooks and helped to found and direct Stanford’s Information Systems Laboratory.

Gene F. Franklin, Professor Emeritus of electrical engineering, passed away unexpectedly on August 9, 2012, at Stanford Hospital, Palo Alto, CA. He was 85 and active until a few days before his death.

Professor Franklin was renowned as a pioneer in automatic control, a field that greatly improved the accuracy and capability of electronic control of machinery, from automobiles to computer disk drives. He garnered control theory’s most prestigious teaching and career awards, but what he cherished most was the steady stream of excellent students with whom he was privileged to work.

Gene F. Franklin, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering.Professor Franklin was born July 25, 1927, in Banner Elk, North Carolina. He expected to follow his father as a math professor until World War II intervened. He served in the US Navy as a radar technician. Adept at radar repair, he was asked to teach others using the text Radio Engineering by Stanford Professor Fred Terman. After the war, with help from the GI Bill, Franklin enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, graduating with highest honors in 1950. He next accepted a fellowship at MIT. 

In 1952, having completed his masters and married the love of his life, Gertrude Stritch, Franklin was offered a teaching position at Columbia University where he could work on his doctorate at the same time. He had stepped into a fantastic center of control research assembled by his mentor Professor John Ragazzini.

After completing his doctorate in 1955, Gene Franklin stayed on at Columbia as assistant professor, co-authoring with Professor Ragazzini Sampled-Data Control Systems, the classic text for digital control. This book laid the theoretical foundation for the use of digital computers to control real world systems. It was adopted almost immediately into the US space program, most famously in the control systems for the Apollo missions to the moon. 

“Gene's importance to control engineers in industry cannot be overstated. His books and teaching style made digital controllers accessible, enabling a slew of consumer products. I would talk about my work with him whenever possible. I valued his sanity checks on my ideas, but mostly it was just so much fun to talk about some small insight or trick, to see that smile creep across his face, and watch his eyes light up. So many of those tricks bore Gene's distinctive imprint: A simple understanding of things that at first looked complicated,” said former student Daniel Abramovitch, principal project engineer at Agilent Laboratories. 

Franklin loved Columbia, but New York City was not ideal for a family, which now included a son and a daughter. So, when in 1957 Stanford Professor John Linvill offered an appointment to the Department of Electrical Engineering as its first professor in control theory, Franklin gladly accepted. Franklin would remain on the faculty at Stanford until 2004. 

The alumni he mentored in that time—a group that includes over 60 PhD students—went on to make significant contributions to the field of automatic control as well as hold high positions in the IEEE, the IEEE Control Systems Society, and the American Automatic Control Council. He prided himself on training students to understand not only the complex theory, but also the simple pragmatism needed to put algorithms to practical use in real world applications. 

Renowned textbooks

Gene Franklin co-authored three of the most influential texts on control systems. In addition to his classic book with Ragazzini, he co-authored two others that have found their way to the bookshelves of almost everyone in the field. Digital Control of Dynamic Systems, co-authored with Stanford colleague J. David Powell in 1980, instantly became the digital controls book of choice. Two subsequent editions (co-authored with J. David Powell and Michael Workman) added tie-ins to computer-aided design tools. 

His third book, Feedback Control of Dynamic Systems, co-authored with J. David Powell and another Stanford colleague Abbas Emami-Naeini, was first published in 1986. The book is now in its sixth edition and received the International Federation of Automatic Control prize as the best book in the controls area. It is famous for breaking down the barriers between classical and modern control theory. His books have been translated into a number of languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

“We wanted to get across the point to students that there is no great mystery to this so-called modern control. It's just another way of looking at the same problem,” Franklin said in an interview. 

“Over a span of 45 years, I enjoyed learning about digital control in his classes, then creating classes with him, and having a very harmonious and pleasant time working with him on nine editions of two textbooks. I have lost a dear friend and colleague. Life will be different without him,” said David Powell, professor emeritus in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford. 

“I was so impressed with his ability to make control theory so lucid, and his resistance to limiting it to just abstract math. He gave those of us in industry a practical, hands-on intuitive understanding. His text became the all-time, hands-down, favorite technical reference of my entire servo career,” said Margot LaPanse, an industry engineer.

Technical contributions

Professor Franklin's most significant technical contributions made previously theoretical control algorithms practical. In reducing the computational requirements of these systems, he allowed the use of smaller computers that could be carried in aircraft and spacecraft to perform control functions. 

“More than any other, Gene is responsible for the era of computer-aided control system design. His influence has been tremendous on my career, and on the five decades of students who have been lucky to be taught by him," said former student and co-author, Abbas Emami-Naeini, consulting professor in the electrical engineering at Stanford and Director at SC Solutions, Inc.

Later, Franklin worked on understanding the sensitivity of physical systems and their controllers to small variations, as well as on practical methods to combat the problem. Several of his students worked with him in the area of nonlinear systems, including adaptive control and what he and his students called “Proximate Time Optimal Servomechanisms,” used universally in the disk drive industry today.

Beloved teacher

As an instructor, Franklin was praised universally by his students, as evidenced by the friendships and collaborations that he maintained with former charges. In over 50 years of teaching engineers how to think clearly about difficult technical problems, he generated an extended family that reaches around the world. 

Former students went out of their way to visit with him, and he always made time for them. At controls conferences, he would often have dinner surrounded by his alumni and close colleagues, gathering stories about where they were in their lives and exchanging views on topics ranging from highly technical material to national politics. 

“I feel very lucky to have had him as a mentor, colleague, and friend for almost thirty years, and I will miss him very much,” said Stephen Boyd, the Samsung Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford.

Professor Franklin's teaching contributions were acknowledged in 1985 when the American Automatic Control Council bestowed upon him the John R. Ragazzini Award, its highest teaching recognition. He was elected a Fellow of the IEEE in 1978 and a Life Fellow in 1993. For a lifetime of achievements in control systems, he was selected to give the 1994 Hendrik W. Bode Lecture by the IEEE Control Systems Society. In 2001, he was awarded the IEEE's Third Millennium Medal and in 2005 he was given the Richard Bellman Control Heritage Award, the highest award of the American Automatic Control Council. In typical fashion, on accepting the award, he credited his family and students.

Upon becoming Professor Emeritus in 1995, Franklin continued to do research and mentor graduate students. He contributed to the long-running Gravity Probe B Experiment to test Einstein's theory of relativity. A 2002 paper, “A Brief History of Disk Drive Control,” which he co-authored with former student Daniel Abramovitch, was honored with the 2003 IEEE Control Systems Magazine Outstanding Paper Award.

During his time at Stanford, he served as Vice Chairman and Acting Chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering. He was one of the founding members of the System Theory Laboratory, which later evolved into the Information Systems Laboratory, where he also served as director. He was Associate Provost for Computing for Stanford University from 1971-1976. In the mid-90s, he served on a campus-wide committee convened by then-Provost Condoleezza Rice to improve science education for non-majors. 

Good friend

Gene Franklin was a giant in his field, but to his peers, students, and alumni he was simply Gene. Until recently, he would hike the hills of the San Francisco Peninsula every Monday with friends and colleagues from Stanford, Professors Art Bryson and Dan DeBra. He had a unique ability to sit patiently in heated discussions (technical or otherwise) and propose a win-win solution, both sides thinking that he had been on their side all along. Gene Franklin was also a disarmingly modest man. Students toward the end of his 50-plus year career were often unaware of his earlier contributions until reading the citations for his many awards. 

Those that knew him well will remember him biking around campus or hiking the hills of Palo Alto; always with a smile for the many friends he would see along the way.

“Gene was one of the most gracious men I ever knew. His quiet manner coupled with his North Carolina accent had a calming effect and made you forget that you were in the presence of one of the giants of twentieth century engineering. Whenever I think of him, he has a twinkle in his eye and an incipient smile, which are followed by a pithy statement. He was a good friend, and I will miss him,” said Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford.