James K. Roberge, professor of electrical engineering, dies at 75

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January 13, 2014

James K. Roberge, spring, 2010.

A member of the MIT faculty since 1967, Roberge spent nearly his entire professional career at MIT.

James K. Roberge, professor of electrical engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) since 1967, died Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. Roberge continued teaching in the department through the fall 2013 term. 

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1938, Jim Roberge came to MIT in 1956, earning the SB, SM and ScD degrees, all in electrical engineering. For nearly all of his professional career, Jim worked for MIT – from postdoctoral research associate to full professor (in 1976). Since 1969, Jim performed research at Lincoln Laboratory.

His research interests in the area of electronic circuits and systems design led him to work in a division at Lincoln Laboratory involved in space communications, instrumentation, and optical communications. His designs have flown on nine satellites.

EECS colleague Vincent Chan, the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, headed the division at Lincoln Lab in which Jim worked. Chan notes that Roberge’s two most important contributions are ultra-high-efficiency power converters for spacecraft and high-precision optical tracking electronics for space laser communications.

“[Jim] brought together his knowledge of circuit designs, control system theory and a large dose of ingenuity to design these systems,” Chan notes. Despite the fact that some of his work was done in the 1980s and 1990s, Chan says, “it [Roberge’s work] still represents the state of the art.”

James Roberge is noted by the colleagues he worked with over the years for his mentorship to not only students but to newer faculty just beginning their careers at MIT. Charlie Sodini, the LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering and member of the MIT EECS faculty since 1983, notes about Jim’s influence on him: “I taught 6.301, [Solid-State Circuits] and 6.302, Feedback Systems, as a recitation instructor for Jim. It was a pleasure to learn the material from someone who had it in his DNA.”

Prof. Roberge is also revered for his teaching and mentoring – encouraging a number of students who are now following in his academic and research footprints. David Trumper, faculty member of the MIT Mechanical Engineering Department since 1993, began his association with Prof. Roberge as an undergraduate student taking 6.301 and 6.302 – classes, which he says “opened up analog circuits as a design discipline.” Roberge served as David Trumper’s undergraduate thesis advisor and later (1987-90) his PhD advisor. Trumper says all will remember Jim for his “keen insights and easy confidence that pretty much any problem could be solved if you looked at it from the right perspective.”

Kent Lundberg, who was a student with Prof. Roberge while he earned his SM and PhD in electrical engineering, is currently a Visiting Professor at Olin College of Engineering. Having taught 6.331 with Prof. Roberge since 1994 and having taught with him this past term (fall 2013), Lundberg says “Knowing Professor Roberge was the best part of my education at MIT.”

Through his research and eye for practical application, Jim Roberge authored 12 patents and worked with more than 160 consulting clients. He was co-founder of Hybrid Systems Corporation, later acquired by Sprague, and of Aerogage Corporation.

Prof. Roberge authored several books including “Operational Amplifiers: Theory and Practice” – a text that has been widely recognized as the authoritative classic. His lectures on Electronic Feedback Systems are available at http://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-6-010-electronic-feedback-systems-spring-2013/index.htm. This website also includes a pdf copy of his textbook, along with a course manual. Also see the Teaching Excellence at MIT videos series on teaching excellence: James K. Roberge 6.302 (Electronic Feedback Systems).

An avid model trains hobbyist,Jim Roberge created a final lecture for 6.302 to demonstrate the classic idea in feedback that – in his words – “something you want to control comes at least in good part from measurement.” Using a 1990 Lionel model with speed control, Jim was pleased to incorporate most of the feedback principles from the entire class in this demo. See the May 13, 2010, Train Lecture video.

EECS Department Head Anantha Chandrakasan summarized Jim Roberge’s impact in his announcement to his colleagues saying: “Jim was a wonderful colleague, teacher, researcher and mentor. He was legendary for his teaching of analog circuits (6.002, 6.301, 6.302, 6.331) and his approach to these subjects had a profound influence on generations of students.”

Jim Roberge is survived by his wife Nancy J. Roberge, his son James D. Roberge and his daughter Anne E. Roberge and grandchildren Andrew, Michael, Jacob, Michael, Jason and Melanie. A funeral service was held Tuesday, Jan. 14 at the Douglass Funeral Home, 51 Worthen Road, Lexington at 10 AM. Visiting hours were held Monday, Jan. 13 from 5 to 8pm. Donations in James K. Roberge’s memory may be made to the MIT Scholarship Fund, 600 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139.