Part 2: From the High Desert

Sam Kistler’s Personal Story

By Dr. Mike Ayers, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Contributor
May 2000

As he approached his retirement from the University of Utah, Sam Kistler self-published a collection of his non-scientific writings entitled Memorabilia (University of Utah Library). Within its pages are two contemporary accounts of his life story. Below are excerpts from these narratives:

Faculty Profile, Utechnic, January 1963

Samuel Stephens Kistler was born March 26, 1900, in Cedarville; and, up to the age of twelve, he lived in this little cattle town of 500 in Northeastern California, which was about as isolated as Escalanti was in the early days. His earliest recollection of transportation problems was that people had to travel seventy-five miles by stage coach to reach the railroad and then another hundred miles by a little narrow gauge to Reno, the metropolis of the area. Usually, the town would be snowed in for six weeks during the winter, when each family lived on what was stored in the cellar. Dependence on shipped-in produce was almost nil, and the only real inconvenience of being isolated was the lack of news from the outside world.

Although he lived in town, his father owning a general merchandise store, the family, like all others in that town, had horses, cows, and a pig or two. It was his ambition, along with all of the other boys, to break wild horses and ride the range.

When he was almost twelve, he was thwarted in his ambitions by his father’s selling out and the family moving to Santa Rosa, where habits and interests changed. His greatest interest now lay in hunting, fishing, and climbing mountains. During his high school years, be and a friend had access to a private chemistry laboratory; and, in addition to taking chemistry at school, they completed the first year of college chemistry.

In 1917, he entered the College of the Pacific, thinking that he would learn to play the cello there and in a year or two transfer to the University of California to get a degree in agriculture. Plans have a way of changing, however. He never did learn to play the cello. After three years of taking all of the chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and botany that the college offered, he transferred to Stanford to get a B.A. degree in chemistry. The following year he took a Ch.E. degree and obtained his first job in the Engineering Department of the Standard Oil Company of California, After a year there, he was invited to teach chemistry at the College of the Pacific and remained-there, except for the year in Germany, until 1931, when be moved to the University of Illinois to teach chemical .engineering. Four years later he was enticed away from the ivory towers to the Norton Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of abrasives and abrasive products.

While at the University of Illinois, he was consultant for du Pont, Rayon and Cellophane Division, spending two days a month at their plant in Buffalo, New York. After four years, du Pont wanted him to give full time to them as a roving consultant in their far-flung textile division, but the pressures for security during the depression outweighed other considerations; and he went to the research laboratory of the Norton Company…

…It is interesting to note that, while teaching biology as a graduate student, Professor Kistler had in his class a very bright student named Margaret Coburn, who is now Mrs. Kistler.

He and Mrs. Kistler have been fond of the outdoors. In 1948 they traveled alone three hundred miles by two-seater kayak, which he built, from the Canadian National Railroad down rivers to Hudson Bay. In the entire distance, they saw two other white people and a few Indians. Again in 1951, they, with their two children, took a similar trip by kayak and canoe over two hundred miles through the wilds of Ontario.

Their latest adventure of this kind was to pack two burros and go on a sixty-five-mile walking trip through the Uintas. They have shot the rapids on the Green River and visited the Eskimos on the northernmost tip of Alaska.

The entire year of 1958 to 1959, they spent traveling around the world.

Dean Kistler came to the University of Utah in 1952 and has gained the love and respect of his associates as well as all those who know him. He is hailed as a man who is doing much for the University and in stimulating those around him…

…Yes, this is Samuel Stephens Kistler, our beloved Dean, our faculty profile.

— Ennis Anderson

University of Utah Biographical Sketch, Utechnic

When offered the position of Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Utah in 1952, Dr. Kistler left private industry for the University campus. As Dean of Engineering, he made the College of Engineering one of the most foremost schools in the nation. In 1964, Dr. Kistler resigned his position in order to devote more time to teaching and research. At present he is Research Professor of Chemical Engineering, special consultant for Avco Research and Advanced Development Company, and Director of Research for the Sterling Grinding Wheel Company.

Research and Accomplishments

As a result of Dr. Kistler’s activity in research, he has authored many articles in scientific journals and chapters in technical books, holds over sixty [70] patents and has helped to develop many more products and processes…

…His research at the University of Utah has included a study of the racemization of organic compounds under extreme pressures, the design of extreme-pressure equipment, the irreversible compression of silica glass at extreme pressures, the influence of extreme pressures on electron capture by certain radioactive nuclei, auto-frettaging steel for pressure vessels, and elastic deformation of carbide anvils.

In 1963, Dr. Kistler developed a process to strengthen glass. The paper resulting from his studies was acclaimed by the American Ceramic Society as “the best technical paper of 1963.” Listed by the Journal of Industrial Research as one of the top ten developments of 1963, this process was licensed to the Corning Glass Company. The royalties are distributed by Dr. Kistler to stimulate new research in the College of Engineering and to finance special projects that have been unable to obtain funds from the customary large sources. Much of the special equipment in the College is the direct result of Dr. Kistler’s “glass-royalties fund.”

Dr. Kistler’s work here, out of state, and abroad still continues to bring renown to the University of Utah College of Engineering. At present, his principal areas of research, publication, and consulting activity are: aerogels, organic and inorganic thermoplastic polymers, refractories, abrasives, high-pressure processes, and, primarily, the strength and failure of glass.

Today the town of Cedarville, California still sits quietly near the California-Nevada border, although it is has grown to a population of almost 1000 over the years. It is unlikely, however, that any of those residents have ever heard of aerogels.

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