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H. Guyford Stever

May 18, 2011

I first attended college at a small trade school in the New York State Capital District. Actually, it was an engineering school, but at the time its engineering was taught more as a trade than a profession. I had the occasion to revisit there on business several years ago, and the place had improved considerably. Guyford Stever, a prominent US physicist, was a trustee of that school while I attended. Stever died about a year ago, on April 9, 2010, at his home in a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

When I was in college, there was no internet, so I had no easy way of discovering who Stever was, or why he would consider being a trustee of that school. The apparent reason was that Stever was an Upstate New Yorker, born in Corning, New York. He attended Colgate University, which is just thirty miles from my hometown, graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in physics. I took one of my SAT tests at Colgate when I was in high school, and I mentioned one of its seminar series in a previous article (The Birthday Problem, August 4, 2010).

There are two significant stories about Stever's undergraduate experience. He needed a suit before going off to college, so friends and neighbors in Corning bought it for him.[1] His son, Roy, said that he was treated like a second-class citizen while at Colgate, since he was attending on a scholarship.[1] The rural boy was out of place with the second-tier Ivies.

Horton Guyford Stever, who was known as "Guy" by his friends and associates, was born on October 24, 1916. He was orphaned as a young child and was raised principally by his maternal grandmother. After Colgate, Stever obtained his Ph.D. in physics in 1941 from Cal Tech. His Ph.D. dissertation, under the direction of William Pickering, was on cosmic rays and the lifetime of the meson.[2] After his degree, he joined the MIT Radiation Laboratory, where "radiation" referred to radar signals and not nuclear radiation, but he spent most of World War II as a civilian scientific liaison officer to British scientists in London.

Stever was one of the US scientists who examined German technology in Europe at war's end. In her obituary of Stever in Physics Today, Sheila E. Widnall of MIT retells an anecdote of Stever's war experience. When Stever and his colleagues were searching for areas of interest, they arrived at a German radar site that was still manned by German troops. The Germans surrendered to the scientists.[2]

Guyford Stever (center), May 26, 1958.

Stever at the May 26, 1958, meeting of the NACA Special Committee on Space Technology.

Stever (center) is flanked by Carl B. Palmer (left), Secretary to the Committee, NACA Headquarters, and Hugh L. Dryden (right) ex officio Director of NACA.

(Via Wikimedia Commons)

Stever was associate dean of engineering at MIT from 1956–1959, taking a short leave in 1956 to serve as chief scientist of the US Air Force. He then served as a department head for mechanical engineering through 1965, when he was named president of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Stever facilitated the creation of a computer science department at Carnegie Tech in 1966. It was one of the first two such departments created in the US.[1]

Carnegie Tech merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research under his leadership to become Carnegie Mellon University, and he served as its president until 1972. Stever was Director of the National Science Foundation (1972 - 1976), succeeding the biochemist, William D. McElroy. Stever also served as US President Gerald Ford's Science Advisor (1973 - 1977).

It's no surprise that Stever was a member of several U.S. government advisory committees, the most significant was his chairmanship of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Special Committee on Space Technology. This committee, known as the "Stever Committee," was organized to coordinate a US response to the Soviet space program. He chaired a National Research Council committee that examined the 1986 Challenger accident and developed a redesign of the space shuttle booster rocket. Well into his 70s, Stever chaired a 1990 National Research Council Committee on Human Exploration of Space.

What is most interesting to me is that Stever, a physicist, spent most of his career among engineers. His administrative skills were facilitated by his easy personality. His son, Roy, commented that "...he was such a remarkably comfortable person to be with."[1] CMU honored Stever in 2008 by naming Stever House, its first "green" residence hall, after him.[1] One of his two sons is named Horton Guyford Stever, Jr.


  1. Eleanor Chute, "Obituary: Horton Guyford Stever - President who merged Carnegie, Mellon institutes," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 11, 2010
  2. Sheila E. Widnall, "Obituary: Horton Guyford Stever," Physics Today, vol. 64, no. 3 (March, 2011), pp. 71-72.
  3. Jared L. Cohon, CMU President, "Remembering President Stever," Announcement of the death of H. Guyford Stever, April 4, 2010.
  4. Guyford Stever page on Wikipedia.                                   

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