Biography of Dr. Robert Lawrence Hess 1924-2017

Dr. Robert Lawrence Hess

Dr. Hess was born i n New Jersey in 1924 and moved with his father, mother and brother to the family homestead in Berrien County, Michigan in 1930. The homestead was purchased from the local Indian tribes in the early 1800’s and then registered with the Michigan Territorial Government. He attended a rural , 2-room school for his first 8 grades and graduated from Benton Harbor High School i n 1942.

While in High School, Dr. Hess enlisted  in the U. S. Navy’s officer training program, V-12. Assigned to the University of Michigan, he received two B.S.E. degrees from the Engineering College in 1945 and was assigned to the Midshipman program at Columbia
University. He was commissioned as Ensign in October 1945 and married his fiance, Gretchen Lois Ream, in Bethlehem Church, Ann Arbor in December 1945. He served as junior division officer, main engines division , on a heavy cruiser at sea and later as division officer on a pair of light escort carriers. Upon release from active World War II  service he returned to Ann Arbor, the home of his wife.

Subsequently he was hired by the Dean of the Engineering College at Michigan as a full time Instructor  and asked to undertake a research project which became the basis of his Doctoral Thesis. “The Dynamics o f Ship’s Structures, including Shear Deformations”.
This work became the first major engineering work to be programmed for the ENIAC,  (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer was the world’s first general-purpose computer. ENIAC was designed and built for the United States Army to calculate artillery firing tables.) that being done by the David Taylor Model Basin, Dept. of the Navy, Washington D.C. During the three years of full time teaching as an Instructor , he served in the U.S. Naval Ready Reserve and spent his training periods at the Model Basin. He was honored by being requested to provide 40 hours of lectures at the Model Basin on advanced mathematics and dynamics for the scientific staff of the U.S. Navy when he was 24 years old.

Hess was recruited by the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) and joined BTL, upon completion of  his doctorate, as a Member of the Technical Staff  in the fall of 1949, being assigned to a ‘heavy-tube’ Development Group. The many research projects he led there included the development o f the pilot line for the production of both the material for and the devices known as ‘point-contact’ , type A transistors. This was before the courts ordered BTL to place the technology on the market and was thus a unique endeavor for Dr. Hess upon which several of the newly licensed companies partly based their developments. It was typical of him to have the breadth of both interest and scientific knowledge that brought him such a coveted assignment and also success in it. He developed new techniques of crystal growing and zone-purifying as well as a novel method of doping the contact area using microwave techniques to create photo – sensitive transistors.

In his third year at BTL, the Dean of Engineering at Michigan called him with an unsolicited invitation to return to the U. of M. as an Assistant Professor, of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and to also take on a Phoenix Project dealing with the atomic structure of glass and ceramics. In 1955 he was
promoted to Associate Professor of Engineering Mechanics. He undertook the reactivation of the Engineering Mechanics Department’s Photo-Elasticity Lab. and generated a course for it as well as teaching in the areas of elasticity and dynamics.

In 1957, the University’s Vice President and Dean of Faculties asked Prof. Hess to join an elite committee of engineers and scientists to oversee the work of the Willow Run  Laboratories f o r the Department of the Army. In 1958 Hess was requested to take leave of his teaching and consulting practice and join a management team to direct the Willow Run Laboratories . Hess was given the assignment of Technical  Director o f  Project Michigan, a multi-million dollar a year program , as well as Assistant Directorship of Willow Run Laboratories. He also became the Head of the Applied Research Group of the Labs, which at that time had just demonstrated the MASER and a year later the demonstration of the Ruby LASER. Hess was instrumental in extending optical data processing to the field of automatic photo interpretation. This was of special importance since the surveillance devices developed by Project Michigan were then beginning to assume the prime role of  the national satellite surveillance system. In 1958, he was promoted to a full professorship, a promotion which was said to make Hess the youngest full professor in the college’s history at that time.

Prof. Hess had a keen ability to manage multiple teams of researchers on topics varying from information processing, semiconductor development, infrared scanning and synthetic antenna radar. He was able to apply his knowledge of  basic physics and
mathematics to these subjects both as a member of the research teams and also represented them to general officers representing the U. S. Army, and, upon the creation of a Department of Defense to the scientific part of that community. In his unique fashion and with unusual modesty, his term of management, which after three years included the project directorship as well as its technical direction, Hess always put his staff in the foreground and sacrificed personal fame in the process. Upon his decision to return to teaching, the Department of the Army awarded Prof. Hess with THE OUTSTANDING
CIVILIAN SERVICE AWARD and MEDAL the inscription of which read in part ‘”Hess succeeded  in establishing and maintaining the University of Michigan as the leading free world authority in surveillance technology. His own proven scientific talent and professional imagination contributed additionally to the accomplishments of a
broad team of scientists and technicians. The rare combination of skill , foresight and devotion to country…”

During 1964 and 1965, Hess also served as the personal representative of the U.S. Army’s Assist. Chief of Staff for Intelligence and led teams of scientists through a comprehensive field review of the Army’s Combat Surveillance  capabilities both in Europe and in Korea.

In  1965 Hess left the Project Michigan assignment and returned to full-time teaching.
President Hatcher offered Hess the challenge of using a $10 million gift from the automobile industry to create the Highway Safety Research Institute. This was a special honor as that gift was reported to have been the largest gift in the University’s history at that time. Hess was able to devote his attention to building the staff and its research programs and also to continue teaching which was his first love. With the cooperation of dozens of the University’s top faculty, Hess was able in a few years to build a facility, hire internationally known figures and to create a program of research spanning fields from Law to Medicine and from Engineering to Psychology. His untiring drive established the Institute as the world premiere institution of its kind and brought not only many millions of research dollars for the support of researchers, faculty, and graduate students but also enhanced the reputation of the University of Michigan. During his tenure at
H.S.R.I., Hess served as a consultant to the Army’ Science Board where he both chaired and participated in the study of many of the nation’s outstanding technical problems and challenges.

Professor Hess personally undertook major research studies while teaching a nearly full load and directing the H.S.R.I. These included a complete review of the research in the scientific, engineering and medical communities of the experimentation protocols in the
area of blunt trauma to the human head and blunt trauma to the thorax. In each case an annotated history of the development and use of the knowledge in research and regulation was made as well as recommendations for future research in the fields. The second area of these studies was selected for publication in the S.A.E. transactions.

Hess also served his university by membership on President Nixon’s Highway Safety Advisory Committee and through several overseas assignments as a Consultant to the World Health Organization. He served his church, Bethlehem United Church of Christ in several capacities including two terms as President. He also was Chairman of the Building Committee which brought about a remodeling of the sanctuary and the addition of a major office / educational wing in 1966.

Prof. Hess resigned his position as Director of U.M.T.R.I., (the successor to H.S.R.I.) and returned to a full time faculty teaching role i n 1984. He founded a computer software company, HCCI, which dealt in the forensic engineering specialty software for an international audience in the forensic engineering area. He undertook the teaching of the senior level Control Systems course with vigor and provided new leadership in its laboratory and course work with several software packages that he wrote to enhance the depth and breath of the educational  experience of the students. These include programs dealing with Fourier techniques, general integration methods, data plotting, frequency analysis, root locus, Nyquist techniques, Myklestad and Holzer techniques, matrix interaction techniques, eigenvalue/eigenvector techniques and many others. He also served as the Mechanical Engineering Program Advisor for over 600 students and wrote degree-audit software packages used by the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics department. The implementation of modern techniques allowed Professor Hess, as the Advisor, to take a proactive rather than a reactive role in counseling.

Professor Hess’s academic and s service accomplishments were outstanding. The respect that he gained from his peers is only reflective of the credit he had given to them over a total of 37 years of devoted service to the University.  In the Pentagon, corporate offices, the classroom and laboratory he represented the best the University of Michigan could offer its students and country.

In addition to many academic and service honors Dr. Hess i s also recognized by a bronze bust in the lobby of the Institute he founded. He retired from the University in 1991.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s