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In Memoriam: James Browning ’44 Th’45 | 1922-2018

Inventor Browning lit up the lab with advances in plasma torch technology. 

James Browning
Courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives.

When James Browning died this fall at the age of 96, he had more than 100 patents to his name. His favorite inventions had a few things in common: “They all made a lot of heat, sparks, and noise—particularly noise,” recalls colleague Dick Couch ’64 Th’65. 

Browning—a pioneer in the invention of plasma torches—died October 8, 2018, in Lebanon, N.H. 

He was exposed to science at an early age through the family business, which did custom tooling for the maritime industry. After earning his ME from Stanford University, Browning returned to Hanover to teach mechanical engineering at Thayer School from 1949 to 1966. In the school’s laboratory, he began experimenting with rocket propulsion, mixing oxygen with kerosene, gasoline, and propane gases. It was an extension of gasoline cutting torches that his father had helped develop. 

“That’s how he got into all this, he saw it as finishing his father’s legacy,” says Browning’s son, Jim. 

In the 1950s, Browning gained a reputation as Hanover’s fire bug for his work with plasma torches that produced flames twice as hot as the sun’s surface. Passing nitrogen or hydrogen through a high-intensity electric arc, the torch cut metal like butter.

He enlisted Merle Thorpe ’51 Th’53 to cofound Thermal Dynamics Corp. in 1958 to manufacture the device. The company went on to build equipment to test the heat shield on the Mercury rocket capsule for re-entry into the atmosphere. A decade later, Browning sold his shares in the company—which by then had 51 employees and annual sales of more than $1 million—to hone a new kind of high-velocity oxygen fuel (HVOF) technology. 

In his remote laboratory in Enfield, N.H., Browning continued to perfect his plasma torch technology, applying it to everything from cutting rock at quarries to drilling through the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctica. Dubbed “Thermoblast,” his high-temperature rocket drill pierced the 1,400-foot-thick ice shelf so scientists could study aquatic life in the water underneath. It took Browning nine hours to drill— but years to develop. He began a series of experiments in 1962 “to gain a better understanding of the principles governing the ‘cutting’ action of jet flames and to evaluate burning designs already available,” as he reported in a paper, “Use of Internal Burners for Working Permafrost and Ice” at the 1963 Permafrost International Conference. 

“He was a terrifically gifted inventor. Up until near the end of his life he was still inventing,” says Couch, who cofounded Hanover-based plasma- and laser-cutting equipment company Hypertherm. 

At a recent conference in Germany, Browning was honored posthumously as the “Father of HVOF” technology, which remains widely used in manufacturing and research, according to Professor Emeritus Horst Richter, who used to attend the conference with Browning. “He asked me quite a few years back if I could help with the theoretical understanding of the HVOF process, which he invented. This resulted in a long-time interaction with Jim, many visits to his laboratory in Enfield, and wonderful technical discussions.” 

“At 85-plus years old, he was still inspiring our most seasoned engineers to think about things differently,” says Hypertherm’s Jack Lee Tu’04. “A visit with Jim provided equal parts amazement and terror. The things he was doing with standard pipes drilled to optimize gas flow were amazing, but the combustible nature of the gases he was using and his management of them was also sometimes a bit terrifying.” 

Browning is survived by his wife of 69 years, Lucille; children Jim, William, and Joel; and two grandchildren. 

—Theresa D'Orsi

Categories: Alumni News, Obituaries

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