Albert G. Hill Dies at 86


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 25--MIT Professor Emeritus Albert G. Hill, 86, a key leader in the development of World War II radar, director of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory development of the electronic Distant Early Warning and SAGE continental air defense systems, and first chairman of The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, died Monday (Oct. 21) at his home in Needham, Mass. The cause of death was chronic pulmonary disease, said a spokesman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Hill, director of MIT Lincoln Laboratory from 1952-1955, waged "an evangelical campaign to gain acceptance of the idea of early warning as a defense against Soviet bomber attack," wrote James R. Killian Jr., the late president of MIT in his 1985 autobiography, The Education of a College President. Professor Hill won the approval of President Harry S. Truman when he appeared before the National Security Council "at a meeting presided over by President Truman, to advocate the building of a Distant Early Warning line" of radar, a $2 billion project, Killian said. Hill and Killian also advocated the DEW line in an article they wrote for the November 1953 Atlantic Monthly entitled "For a Continental Defense," citing "the new and awful urgency created by the Soviets' achievement of a nuclear explosion."

Robert A. Duffy, retired president/CEO of the Draper Laboratory, where Hill served as chairman from 1970 through 1982, said "For many years, Al Hill quietly contributed to the national security by his advice to the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the Weapons Systems Advisory Group and the Institute of Defense Analysis were being formed" in the Cold War era of the late 1950s. "Al Hill was an unsung hero, the kind of guy who always worked through people. He was wise enough to let other people get the credit for the achievements he was involved with."

Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the board of trustees of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paid tribute to Dr. Hill, who served MIT for 41 years as a technical leader in the MIT Radiation Lab (which developed radar into a useful military tool); a professor of physics; director of the Research Laboratory for Electronics (1949-52); director of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory (1952-55); deputy chairman of the Physics Department from 1967-73; MIT vice president for research (1970-75); and director of the Plasma Fusion Center (1976-78), as well as the leader in the 1970s of the transformation of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory into the independent Draper Laboratory.

Dr. Gray recalled Dr. Hill's distinguished career as an MIT administrator, which included being "a strong but generally unrecognized early advocate for equal opportunity and affirmative action." Hill personally recruited African-American graduate students and faculty for the MIT Department of Physics, putting that department in the vanguard of these efforts at MIT. Additionally, he chaired the committee which proposed and organized the Office of Minority Education. Dr. Gray also recalled that "Al often described himself as being like a roasted marshmallow - hard and crusty on the outside but soft and gooey on the inside."

Dr. Hill was born in St. Louis, Mo. on Jan. 11, 1910. He received his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering in 1930 from Washington University in St. Louis. After two years as an engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories, he returned to Washington University to get his M.S. degree in physics in 1934. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Rochester in 1937.

He was an instructor in physics at MIT from 1937 to 1941, when he became a staff member of the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, known as the "Radlab," which was developing radar for use in World War II. Hill headed the Radio Frequency Group in the Transmitter Components division, and at the end of the war headed the 800-person division. The Radlab had three major missions: "to develop a 10-centimeter airborne set for use by night fighters; to achieve an accurate precision gun-laying radar, and to design a long-range navigational system which came to be called LORAN and that today is in worldwide use," Killian wrote in 1985. Killian wrote that the head of the Radlab, Lee DuBridge, summarized the laboratory's achievement "by remarking that radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it."

After the war, Hill became an associate professor of physics. In July 1946, MIT formed the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) as the natural continuation of the Radiation Laboratory's basic research division. Hill was named associate director, and became professor of physics in 1947. In 1949, Killian appointed Hill as the director of RLE and Professor Jerome B. Wiesner (a member of the Radlab who was to become president of MIT in 1971) as associate director.

The MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass. was formed in 1951 at the request of the government, and Dr. Hill became its second director, serving from 1952 to 1955 and leading the development of the computerized SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system and the Distant Early Warning line of radar sets stretching from northern Alaska to Greenland. Among those who worked on the SAGE project at Lincoln Lab was Kenneth Olsen, who built on his experience with SAGE in founding Digital Equipment Corporation.

Hill returned to teaching and research at MIT in 1955 and during that summer helped to establish the SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe) Technical Center in The Hague and the NATO Communications Line, extending from northern Norway to eastern Turkey.

In 1956, Dr. Hill was called to Washington to serve as director for the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group and vice president and director of research for the Institute for Defense Analyses. He returned to MIT in 1959 and resumed teaching physics. In 1965, he also became a lecturer in MIT's Department of Political Science.

In 1970, he was appointed to the new position of vice president for research, combining the duties formerly held by the vice president for research administration on campus and the vice president for special laboratories (Lincoln Laboratory and the Instrumentation Laboratory). In May 1970, MIT formally divested itself of the Instrumentation Laboratory, which under the direction of Charles Stark Draper had developed the gyroscope and the inertial guidance system and had guided Apollo XI and mankind to the moon in July 1969. Hill, still vice president of research at MIT, became the chairman of the independent board of directors of the laboratory, renamed The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in honor of its founder. The Draper Lab remained a division of MIT for three years and became totally independent in 1973.

"My association with the laboratory came at a politically disquieting time," Hill said in an interview in the Draper Lab newsletter, D-Notes, upon his retirement in 1982. "The public resistance to the Vietnam War affected MIT and Stark Draper's laboratory knew that it was going to be separated from MIT. The morale was low." Hill met weekly with the top 50 people at the lab "and by the time of the tenth meeting, suspicions were somewhat allayed and Draper personnel believed there would be a future for them..."The spirit of the lab members was excellent. I am proud of my part in preserving Draper Laboratory, but more importantly, I am proud of what the lab people did."

In the end, only eight out of 2,000 people chose not to stay at the lab. In 1984, the Draper Laboratory dedicated a new building at One Hampshire Strreet, Cambridge and named it the Albert G. Hill Building.

Asked what he felt was his greatest contribution, Hill responded, "My greatest contribution to society has been in thinking people are good and dignified, and that people left to their own devices with a little bit of guidance will do a good job."

Hill remained MIT vice president of research and was chairman of an advisory group that started MIT's Energy Laboratory. He retired as vice president in 1975, only to come back in 1976 and serve until 1978 as director of MIT's Plasma Fusion Center.

Hill received many honors, including the Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1948, the Air Force Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1955, the Secretary of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1959, and the Washington University Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1955.

A memorial service is planned at MIT at a time to be announced. Hill had no children. His first marriage, to Ethel Sampson, ended in divorce. He and his second wife, Ruth Parker, were married in 1960; she died in 1990. Hill is survived by three nieces and a nephew: Ms. Carol Hill Timson of St. Louis and Salem, Mo.; Ms. Lexie Hill Schoen, The Hague, Holland; Ms. Marcella Louise Hill Taylor, Apple Valley, Cal.; and Jesse Landis Boogher Hill, Aptos, Cal., and by Lexie Timson Long of St. Louis and nine other grandnieces and grandnephews. Donations may be made in his name to the American Lung Association, 1505 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, MA 02135-3605.


Topics: Obituaries

Back to the top