A Life: James Alexander Browning, 1922 — 2018; ‘The Kind of Eccentric Inventor Who Worked on His Own’

  • James Browning works with an oxygen-fueled torch to create metal coating in his Enfield, N.H., garage laboratory in July 2012. (Jeff Semprebon photograph)

  • Professor James Browning is photographed with a plasma torch in the laboratory at Thayer School of Engineering in an undated photograph. (Family photograph) Courtesy photographs

  • Photographed in April 1985, James Browning, of Hanover, N.H, ran a business for drilling granite and other rock. It was amongst several businesses he started in his lifetime. (Valley News - Bill Conradt) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Bill Conradt

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/5/2018 12:10:07 AM
Modified: 11/5/2018 12:10:11 AM

Hanover— One day Jim Browning drove to his father’s workshop in remote Enfield to discover his dad, the Hanover inventor James Browning, all by himself dragging a five-foot cylinder tank filled with hydrogen gas out the shop door.

“What are you doing?” Jim Browning asked his father, worried that the strain of wrestling a 100-plus pound cast iron cylinder was too much for his father, who was then in his late 80s.

“I was tightening the cap on the cylinder and accidentally opened the valve and hydrogen was coming out and filling the shop so I have to get this thing out or it could all blow up,” James Browning said in a nothing-to-worry tone to his son.

“It was pretty powerful equipment,” Jim Browning said of the collection of gas-powered, high-velocity plasma which his father designed and built at his garage lab in the Enfield woods. “It wasn’t the sort of thing you want your grandfather running.”

Tinkering with torches that shoot a plasma stream hotter than the surface of the sun and that roar like a jet engine and could be heard thousands of feet away was not without a dash of danger.

“There were a few trips to the emergency room with burns on his arm,” Jim Browning, who lives in his parent’s Orion Drive home, recalled of his father. “It wasn’t particularly safe.”

James Browning, a nearly seven-decade resident of the Upper Valley and former Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering professor, went on to co-found Thermal Dynamics Corp. and was a pioneer in the invention of plasma torches.

He died on Oct. 8 at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative & Hospice Care in Lebanon. He was 96.

Browning had a home in Hanover where he lived with his wife of 69 years, Lu, and their three adult children, who are all neighbors on a hillside property. Well into his 90s, the trim and fit Browning would walk a mile down the hill to the Stevens Road and a steep mile back every day — family and friends said he regularly ran laps around the track at Dartmouth’s Leverone Field House well into his 70s.

“He was the kind of eccentric inventor who worked on his own in a way that was more suitable to the 19th century than the 20th century,” said son Jim Browning. “He just had an intense interest in designing new things.”

Eschewing use of a computer, Browning preferred to sketch out his designs for plasma torches on yellow lined paper, taping pieces together so the drawing would be to scale and always using his favorite 2.5 mm lead pencil.

He held more than 100 patents and only last week was honored posthumously at an engineer’s conference near Munich, Germany, as “the father of high velocity oxygenfuel” technology that is widely used in manufacturing and research today, said Horst Richter, of Norwich, a retired Thayer professor and former associate.

“For a long time Jim had a technician who built the equipment for him but when when he didn’t have him any longer, Jim would build things himself,” said Richter.

He recalled that Browning had once fitted out a plasma drilling machine to cut granite on the flatbed of an 18-wheeler and “when he couldn’t find anyone to drive it out to Idaho, he drove it himself.”

Browning, growing up in Great Neck on Long Island in New York, became entranced by science at an early age. His father was an engineer, and the Browning family ran a New York City marine hardware business that did custom tooling for the maritime industry.

An early ski enthusiast and champion diver, Browning had attended Blair Academy in New Jersey before enrolling at Dartmouth just as World War II got underway. His studies at Dartmouth were interrupted for service in the Pacific, before he returned to Dartmouth and graduated in 1944.

While studying for a graduate degree in engineering at Stanford University in California, Browning met Lucille Barkdull, a fellow Stanford student from Idaho. They married and moved to Hanover in 1949, where Browning got a job teaching mechanical engineering.

Skiing was a passion of Browning’s, a sport he pursued on the world’s most challenging slopes, from Sun Valley to the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

“When we were students at Stanford, he said, ‘Oh, you have to learn how to ski. All my friends ski,” recalled his wife Lu Browning. When they went on holiday to ski in Idaho, Lu Browning said her husband told her when they got to the top of the mountain, “just follow me and do what I do … it was a disaster,” Lu Browning, 93, laughed. “I wound up in ski class instead.”

While teaching engineering at Thayer, Browning began experimenting in the school’s laboratory with miniature rocket systems fueled by a mixture of oxygen with kerosene, gasoline and propane gases.

Jim Browning said the work was in fact an extension of gasoline cutting torches that his own father, who died when James Browning was a youth, had developed.

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

Browning’s work, because of the strange fumes emitted from the laboratory, caught the attention of townspeople, according to a 1955 profile of him in a college publication.

Earning the nickname “Hanover’s own firebug,” Browning “after several hours in his laboratory … used to exude an aura of gasoline and mothballs. And as he passed people on the street on his way homeward, he was the subject of many curious glances from people who suddenly realized who was defiling the usually ‘pine-scented’ atmosphere of Hanover. They never did realize exactly what the substance was.”

Browning left Thayer to co-found Thermal Dynamics Corp. with the late Merle Thorpe, a fellow Thayer professor, in 1958, to develop and market a plasma-cutting torch for industry. The Lebanon company, among other things, developed equipment to test the heat shield on the Mercury rocket capsule for re-entry into the atmosphere. By the late 1960s, when Browning sold his shares — the successor company is today a unit of Maryland-based Colfax Corp. — Thermal Dynamics had 51 employees and annual sales of more than $1 million, the equivalent of about $8 million today.

In the ensuing years, Browning formed a series of other companies to perfect his plasma torch technology, applying it to everything from cutting rock at quarries to burning a hole 1,400 feet below the Antarctic to detect aquatic life in the water beneath the ice.

He acquired a granite quarry in Hanover — the granite peg bollard posts that today line South Main Street were cut from Browning’s quarry — and at one point proposed that his plasma torch technology could drill holes deep enough into the ground in Canaan that capsules containing nuclear waste could be dropped safely down into the shafts.

“It was an engineering solution no one wanted,” said Jim Browning. “I’m not sure how serious he was about it, but no one wanted it in their backyard.”

Still, Jim Browning acknowledged, his father could be persistent with an idea in the face of opposition.

“He got kind of stubborn about it,” Jim Browning said. “It was not his finest moment.”

But that stubbornness also was an asset for Browning in his long-running lawsuit against Union Carbide alleging patent infringement.

The Browning family remembers it as a “roller coaster for all of us at the time” and “sense of unease” that was felt in the household because of ongoing meetings with lawyers, said Jim Browning.

Eventually, the litigants reached a settlement that was very favorable toward his father, Jim Browning said, and the battle was a defining experience.

“He stood up to a huge Fortune 500 company,” Jim Browning said proudly. “If he didn’t do that, it would probably have done him in.”

Browning frequently enlisted his own children, William Browning, Jim Browning and their sister, Joel Browning, to work with him on various projects — Joel Browning served as her father’s office manager and secretary at his laboratory in Enfield and son William worked at the quarry for a time near Goose Pond in Hanover.

Jim Browning said he would accompany his father on expeditions to quarries in Canada.

“He really loved the quarry business,” Jim Browning said, putting his father into contact with a rough and tumble quarrymen and their backbreaking trade. “It was totally different than the equations on the board in an Ivy League classroom … he really loved granite and spent a lot of time in the woods by himself. You can find chips cut in granite outcroppings all over the Upper Valley.”

Browning’s influence on family members extended down to his two granddaughters, Micaela Browning and her sister, Alexa, said Micaela Browning, an international development specialist and now data analyst with the city of New Orleans.

“I was kind of a nerdy little kid growing up,” Micaela Browning said, adding her grandfather helped to instill in her valuable self-confidence and pride. “My grandfather was the first one to say when I was young, ‘It may not seem like it now, but being nerdy is really cool.”

There was, besides jogging, James Browning’s other favorite activity: hiking with his family in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Jim Browning said his father was particularly proud of being a member of the Four Thousand Footer Club from having hiked all 48 of the state’s 4,000-foot or above peaks.

When he reached the apex, Browning celebrated the climb with his favorite reward: a lobster roll sandwich and can of Ballantine Ale.

Jim Browning acknowledges it could sometimes be difficult for family members of an eccentric inventor. “He lived an interior private life. He was a technology guy. His head was always going on about stuff. As far as warm and fuzzy goes, that wasn’t really him.”

The role of consummate inventor fit Browning like a glove, said Dick Couch, co-founder of the plasma and laser cutting equipment company Hypertherm.

The two Dartmouth-educated engineers, although they didn’t overlap in college, were both friends and competitors. But unlike Couch, who enjoyed the business end of engineering, Browning didn’t have a lot of patience for the details and headaches of running a company.

“Jim was interested in inventing things,” Couch said. “He wasn’t terribly interested in all the hard work that goes into making an on-going enterprise.”

Browning, Couch said, continued to call on him with drawings for new combustion-spraying equipment well into his 90s,

“In Enfield, he could make all the noise he wanted,” said Couch.

Browning was thinking of how to make engineering improvements right up until the end of his life, said his wife, Lu.

She related how during his four days at the Byrne Center he was trying to persuade her to be his “business partner” on a method to improve the oxygen machine that was aiding his breathing.

“He had this crazy plan, even in the last week of his life, about the oxygen machine,” said Jim Browning. “Even toward the end of his life you could see the wheels turning in his head. He was always thinking.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

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