The Inventor James Hillier, who helped develop and market the first commercially successful electron microscope in the United States and then found uses for it in medical research, died at age 91. Hillier died Jan. 15 at a Princeton hospital after suffering a stroke.
While still a University of Toronto graduate student, James worked with a fellow researcher to advance the work of German scientists to produce a viable electron microscope. Hillier’s device magnified objects three times more than existing microscopes, producing an image 7,000 times. He and other scientists found ways to protect samples from burning up by using colloid film and slicing specimens thin enough that electrons could pass through without heating them.
By the end of the 1940s, its magnification power had jumped to 200,000 times. Hillier continued working on refinements, and RCA sold about 2,000 electron microscopes between 1940 and the 1960s. He became director of RCA’s Princeton research laboratories in 1958, became an executive vice president for research and engineering and was a senior scientist when he retired in 1977. Among the projects he shepherded were lasers, transistors, liquid crystal displays and a forerunner of the DVD.
In 1960, Hillier received an Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research, and in 1997 he was decorated with the Order of Canada, among that country’s highest honors.