Albert Hill, developer of radar and air defenses, dies at 86


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 October 21 at his home in Needham of pulmonary disease.

Dr. Hill, director of Lincoln Lab 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 approval 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, Dr. Killian said. Professors 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."

Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the MIT Corporation, 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 of Electronics (1949-52), director of Lincoln Lab, 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. Hill also was chairman of an advisory group that started MIT's Energy 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." Dr. Hill personally recruited African-American graduate students and faculty for the physics department, putting it 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."

"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, said Robert A. Duffy, retired president and CEO of Draper Lab, where Hill served as chairman from 1970 through 1982.

Dr. Hill was born in St. Louis on Jan. 11, 1910. He received the BS in mechanical engineering (1930) from Washington University in St. Louis and, after serving two years with Bell Telephone Laboratories, the MS in physics (1934). He received the PhD 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 was chief of the 800-person division. The head of the RadLab, Lee DuBridge, summarized the laboratory's achievement "by remarking that radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it," Dr. Killian wrote.

After the war, Dr. 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. Dr. Hill was named associate director, and became professor of physics in 1947. In 1949, Dr. Killian appointed Hill as the director of RLE.

Lincoln Lab was formed in 1951 at the request of the government, and Dr. Hill became its second director, leading the development of the computerized SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system and the DEW line of radar sets stretching from northern Alaska to Greenland. He helped establish in 1955 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 the Department of Political Science.

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

"My association with the laboratory came at a politically disquieting time," Dr. 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." In the end, however, only eight out of 2,000 people chose not to stay at the lab. In 1984, the Draper Laboratory dedicated the Albert G. Hill Building at One Hampshire Street in Cambridge.

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: Carol Hill Timson of St. Louis and Salem, MO; Lexie Hill Schoen, The Hague, Holland; Marcella Louise Hill Taylor, Apple Valley, CA; and Jesse Landis Boogher Hill, Aptos, CA, 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.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 1996.


Topics: Obituaries

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