Benjamin J. Dasher, Jr.: Engineer, Educator, Scholar, Difference Maker
Written by Roger P. Webb
Benjamin Dasher, Jr. was a man of smallish stature who spoke with a genteel southern accent and had an enduring twinkle in his eyes. Quiet, self-confident and modest, he became head of the Georgia Tech School of Electrical Engineering in 1954. During his 15-year tenure as the School’s leader, he laid the foundation that enabled it to become one of the nation’s preeminent electrical engineering education programs.
Born in 1912 in Macon, Georgia, Ben attended public schools there. While in high school, he and his younger brother Campbell formed Dasher Electric, an electric apparatus repair business and Ben gained a reputation for being able to fix anything.
Ben matriculated at Georgia Tech in 1931 and received his B.E.E. degree in 1935. That was not a banner year for employment of fledgling electrical engineers, so Ben remained at Georgia Tech as a graduate teaching assistant. He joined the faculty as an instructor in 1940. When he completed his master’s degree work in 1945, he was promoted to assistant professor.
In 1941, Ben married Anne Brooks, an Athens, Georgia, native and graduate of the University of Georgia. Anne’s UGA roots ran deep; her father, Georgia’s first Rhodes Scholar, served as Dean of the Business School and Dean of Faculty. According to family lore, Anne’s UGA heritage always surfaced during the annual Georgia Tech-UGA football game.
The first of Ben’s six children was born in 1943, and in 1947 Ben moved his family to Boston to enter the doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he was affiliated with the Research Laboratory for Electronics. According his oldest son, Ben III, his father was passionate about voice recognition and intended to do his thesis research in that area. RLE Director Jerome Wiesner, who later became president of MIT, believed voice recognition was not feasible and sent Ben in another direction. Working with Professor Ernst Guillemin, a renowned network theorist, Ben focused his doctoral research on passive network synthesis. A major result was Ben’s development of the “Dasher Method” for synthesis of two-port networks. The method achieved considerable recognition and wide utilization.
One example: Immediately following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. government began development of several offensive and defensive missiles. A problem engineers frequently encountered in initial testing of these missiles was that the control system sensors would pick up various mechanical resonances (e.g., body bending and fuel sloshing) causing the missiles to oscillate at the resonant frequencies, often with disastrous results. Control system designers labeled these phenomena as “tail wags the dog” effects. They adopted the Dasher Method to design so called ‘notch filers,’ which greatly attenuated the offending frequencies. Thus, the Dasher Method became a major tool in restoring the dog to its rightful role.
In 1952, after earning his Doctor of Science degree at MIT, Ben returned to Georgia Tech as Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering. Two years later, he was promoted to Professor and named Director of the School. At the time, the School was in the vastly inadequate Savant building. The 17 tenure-track faculty shared a limited number of faculty offices, with as many as five faculty in one small space.
That year, the School produced 111 bachelor degree graduates, 8 master’s degree graduates, and no doctoral degree graduates. The graduate course offerings were limited and the undergraduate curriculum was much the same as when Ben graduated in 1935.
One of Ben’s first initiatives as director was to revise the undergraduate curriculum. He led implementation of a modern and flexible curriculum, which remained in effect until 1969 when the University System of Georgia mandated a 20 percent reduction in credit hour requirements for the bachelor’s degree. A parallel initiative was to increase the number of faculty and position them to operate a modern curriculum and growing graduate program.
Major events external to the School helped drive the success of these initiatives.
- The Board of Regents approved granting of the Ph.D. degree in science and engineering in 1950, spurring the development of doctoral programs.
- The first women earned Georgia Tech degrees in 1956. One of them, Shirley Clements Mewborn, who earned a B.E.E., had a very successful engineering career and served on the School’s advisory board for a number of years. The Georgia Tech women’s softball field is named for her.
- In 1955, then Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin banned Georgia Tech participation in the 1956 Sugar Bowl because the opposing team had an African American starting player. National press widely covered Georgia Tech students’ vehement protest of the ban, leading to its lifting. (Georgia Tech scored the only points in the game, beating the Pittsburgh Panthers 7 – 0.)
- The 1957 the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik precipitated a sea change in technological development, in the public view of engineering and science and, ultimately, in the nature of and enrollment in the associated academic programs.
- In 1961, Georgia Tech became the first so-called “Deep South” university to integrate without a court order. Then President Ed Harrison banned the press from campus on the day the first three African American students enrolled and integration was essentially a non-event.
- In 1962, the Van Leer Electrical Engineering Building and the Bunger-Henry Chemical Engineering Building became the first two new “off the Hill” academic buildings on the campus.
Ben and one of his senior faculty members, Dave Finn, carefully planned the new 80,000-square-foot Van Leer Building so that it was well-configured and well-equipped. The building did, however, have a few challenges coming on line. It was far too large for existing School operations, and the university assigned space to the computer science school and to computer center staff. Ben resisted, conserving space for future faculty expansion by assigning generous faculty offices even to graduate teaching assistants. Another problem was unsynchronized hall clocks, making ringing of classroom bells a random event. After attempting unsuccessfully to have a contractor correct the problem, Ben lived up to his reputation and fixed it himself.
In 1969, when Ben stepped down as Director of Electrical Engineering to become Associate Dean of Engineering, the School had grown both in size and stature.
Ben would probably not accept full credit for his many contributions, but in fact his quiet, professional leadership was directly responsible for positioning the School for its robust future evolution. He kick-started the doctoral program. He designed and implemented a completely revised undergraduate curriculum. He initiated and managed moving the School to new and modern facilities. He nearly doubled the size of the tenure-track faculty.
Ben Dasher, Jr. died in 1972 just two weeks shy of his 60th birthday. His life was short, but he lived it well and left an enduring legacy. He truly made a difference.
Last revised May 15, 2020