George Hatsopoulos, inventor who created and led Thermo Electron Corp., dies at 91
George Hatsopoulos, who created Thermo Electron Corp. and built it into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, thought the best approach to business was to figure out how to spot society’s needs on the distant horizon.
“We try to anticipate problems and begin to address them long before others recognize the need,” he told The Boston Globe in 1989. “The best way to put technology to work is to address new problems. You can always address existing problems, but there’s more competition there.”
In a sense, he spent his entire life filling unmet needs. As a teenager in Greece during World War II, he used spare parts to build radios so families and resistance fighters could hear forbidden broadcasts during the Nazi occupation. His secret operation in the basement of his parents’ home foreshadowed the business he would start as an adult in the garage of his own house.
“To understand what the market really needs is very tricky thing,” he said in 1990, when the Museum of Science named him the inventor of the year.
Mr. Hatsopoulos, whose business became one of Greater Boston’s largest companies before a 2006 merger turned it into the even more expansive Thermo Fisher Scientific, died Sept. 20 in his Lincoln home of pneumonia. He was 91.
A life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation, Mr. Hatsopoulos received the John Fritz Medal in 1996. Often called the highest award in the engineering profession, the medal is presented annually to recognize scientific or industrial achievement in any field of pure or applied science.
And in his 70s, after retiring as chairman and chief executive of Thermo Electron, he founded another company, called Pharos, for which he also was chairman and chief executive. “I don’t like golf,” Mr. Hatsopoulos quipped in a 2005 Globe interview.
On his watch, Thermo Electron made a practice of spinning out new companies (he preferred that term to spinning off). The successful strategy gave him an extensive reach, corporately and creatively, as inventions the companies brought to market responded to an array of emerging needs, including pollution, nuclear leaks, screening for drugs and explosives at airports, and even a device that assisted the workings of the heart.
Timing and financing always played key roles. In 1990, he said that “the big question is: Is the market going to be big enough to justify putting all that money into development?”
“There are many inventions that are very beautiful and look very useful,” he added, “but then the needs change.”
Throughout much of his career building Thermo Electron, Mr. Hatsopoulos also was a teacher. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in 1956 and joined the faculty of the school’s mechanical engineering department. Several years later, he was named a senior lecturer, a post he held until 1990. “I have fun teaching,” he told MIT’s Infinite History project.
“I was amazed to find out that his real passion was business and being an entrepreneur, and that the academic work was just his hobby,” Walter Bornhorst said in a eulogy. Mr. Hatsopoulos was Bornhorst’s doctoral adviser at MIT, then his boss at Thermo Electron, and then his father-in-law.
“I saw one giant at MIT and another at Thermo,” Bornhorst said at a memorial service. “I’m one of the few people who saw two giants, all in this one man.”
Born in Athens, George Nicholas Hatsopoulos was the older of two brothers. His brother, John of Nassau, Bahamas, formerly was president of Thermo Electron.
When the Nazis commandeered space in the Hatsopoulos family’s house during World War II, young George began building radios in the basement. He started college at the National Technical University of Athens, then went to MIT, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, and a doctorate.
He married Daphne Phylactopoulou in 1959 in the MIT Chapel. She also was from Greece. Their families knew each other there, and her mother at one point had given Mr. Hatsopoulos English lessons, but they didn’t meet until they were in the United States, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and later with a master’s from Boston College.
“I married George because he was so smart,” she said in an interview. “He wasn’t just an engineer, he was a scientist, he was a thinker, he was a philosopher,” she said, adding that “what made him special was his kindness — his consideration for everybody.”
She had also worked at Thermo Electron, running the department that did computer analysis for the corporate office.
Mr. Hatsopoulos “didn’t act like a businessman although he dressed the part,” their son, Nicholas, said in a eulogy.
“And he wasn’t really a scientist who later became a businessman,” said Nicholas, a professor in the University of Chicago’s department of organismal biology and anatomy. “Rather, he was a businessman at heart that thought like a scientist and philosopher.”
During his youth in Athens, Mr. Hatsopoulos emulated the inventor Thomas Edison — “his dream as a child was to come to the United States and build a company,” Daphne said.
“My dad never missed an opportunity to point out all the great things that came from Greece, and he never forgot his Greek identity,” their daughter, Marina of Boston, said in her eulogy.
“But he was really in love with America, because it was in America where he found the opportunity to push hard, build, and create,” said Marina, an entrepreneur who chairs the board of Levitronix.
Mr. Hatsopoulos once said coming up with inventions takes “a lot of work and a lot of luck — and passion. You need to want it very badly.”
“He works at understanding details and he doesn’t just pontificate as so many in prominent positions do,” Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard University president and former US Treasury secretary, said of Mr. Hatsopoulos in a 1989 Globe interview. “He’s not hung up on his role as a CEO. He’s willing to listen to anyone.”
Mr. Hatsopoulos also was principal author for the books “Principles of General Thermodynamics” and “Thermionic Energy Conversion,” volumes one and two. He served on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston board, and on the governing council of the National Academy of Engineering, among many appointments. He also was a commander of the Order of Honor in Greece and had been a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
When he retired from Thermo Electron in 1999, the company had more than 24,000 employees in 23 countries.
A service has been held for Mr. Hatsopoulos, who in addition to his wife, two children, brother, and son-in-law, leaves four grandchildren.
In his quest to find new possibilities for his company, Mr. Hatsopoulos saw endless opportunities.
“I am convinced that the best opportunities for technology are in addressing new needs,” he said in the 1990 Globe interview.
“And in the last 20 years most of the new needs have come from hazards. But we’re not just hazard-oriented,” he added. “Tomorrow we’re going to go after any new need, no matter what it is. If there’s a shortage of sunshine, you’ll see us making artificial suns.”