James Hillier, 91; designed first practical electron microscope

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Times Staff Writer

James Hillier, the Canadian-born physicist who made the first practical electron microscope, then personally convinced hundreds of scientists to use it, has died. He was 91.

Hillier died of a stroke Jan. 15 at University Medical Center in Princeton, N.J., according to his family.

Light microscopes can magnify objects 2,000-fold, making it possible to observe single-celled organisms and small sections of tissue. Hillier’s first electron microscope, which he later called “strictly a string and beeswax operation,” was capable of a 7,000-fold magnification, but subsequent improvements made by him and others brought it up to a million-fold -- making it possible to observe individual molecules.


Today, the electron microscope is a common tool in laboratories throughout the world. In 1960, after he had won the prestigious Lasker Award for his work, Hillier told Time magazine: “The electron microscope is like the monkey wrench on the garage wall: What you do with it is the important thing.”

Hillier did not invent the electron microscope. That feat is generally credited to German engineers Ernst Ruska, who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics for his work, and Reinhold Rudenberg.

Ruska’s crude device could magnify objects about 1,500-fold, but it had significant problems, especially aberrations in the focusing of the electron beam that are similar to astigmatism in the human eye. The astigmatism made it impossible for the device to produce accurate images at high magnification.

While Hillier was in graduate school at the University of Toronto in 1937, his advisor, physicist Eli F. Burton, assigned him and fellow graduate student Albert Prebus to develop a working electron microscope. Within four months, they had put together a working model.

The key to their work was a device devised by Hillier, called the stigmator, that corrected astigmatism. The stigmator has since been a standard feature of electron microscopes.

The pair faced one large hurdle in their work, according to Hillier’s son J. Robert: The electron beam would wander from the target every so often. Eventually they noticed that it happened on a schedule: Their lab was near a trolley line, and every time one passed by, its magnetic field pulled the beam off center.


Hillier spent another year perfecting his microscope, then took the design to Radio Corp. of America in Camden, N.J., where he joined the research staff and continued perfecting it. Within a short time, he had it operating near its theoretical limit of efficiency.

Because RCA’s marketing people were focused primarily on radio and, later, television, he took it upon himself to promote the new product.

“I would bring in 15 or 20 people, usually in a particular discipline,” he later told Business News New Jersey. “I’d show them the instrument and what could be done with it. Then I would find someone in the group who was really interested, and I’d invite him back in a couple of weeks.

“Meanwhile, I worked like the devil in the library, learning something about that discipline. By the time the person came back, I had learned enough, including how to prepare specimens. That was a novel selling technique and, almost invariably, I sold an instrument.”

Within two years, he sold 50 instruments at $10,000 apiece and developed 50 pioneers in 50 different fields.

He served as director of RCA’s research laboratory for more than a decade, overseeing the development of the Electrofax process for copying printed matter, the MOS transistor, CMOS circuits and RCA’s VideoDisc System.


Hillier retired in 1973 and devoted himself to his “hobby” of playing the stock market and helping out in his wife’s flower store in Princeton, where he made deliveries and built display shelves.

Hillier was born Aug. 22, 1915, in Brantford, Canada. As a youth, he was interested in ham radio and spotting barnstorming aircraft in the area. His father bought him a telescope so he could read the numbers on the planes, and he converted the eyepiece into his first microscope.

Because the family was poor, Hillier did not think college was in his future and he aspired to become a commercial artist, which did not require a formal education. A sympathetic high school teacher arranged a scholarship for him to the University of Toronto, but there was a catch -- he had to study physics and math.

He returned the favor by endowing the James Hillier Foundation in Brantford, which each year provides several scholarships to students planning to study science in college.

Hilliard, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and his wife, the former Florence Marjory Bell, attended high school and college together. They had been married 55 years when she died in 1992.

A son, William Wynship Hillier, a television producer, died in 2002.

In addition to his son J. Robert, Hillier is survived by two sisters, May Hillier of Brantford and Thelma Henshaw of Naples, Fla.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.