George Hatsopoulos Changed the Thermodynamics of Life

The late professor and inventor George Hatsopoulos, one of the most prominent Greek-American in US. TNH/Archive

It was a life well lived for noted scientist George Hatsopoulos, leading the Fortune 500 company Thermo Electron in Waltham, Massachusetts, a humble scientist who had the ear and attention of business executives and President Ronald Reagan.

Hatsopoulos died Sept. 20 at his home in Lincoln, Mass. On Sept. 20 at age 91 after a noted career in a field hard for many to understand but where his keen mind and brilliance stood out like a beacon in a difficult field, along with his business acumen. He had suffered for a decade from a Parkinson’s-like neurological disorder.

The Wall Street Journal reported on his career in retrospect, noting that while some CEO’s liked taking to golf he preferred to stay home in his study, fogged with pipe smoke, and elaborate his theories on thermodynamics or economic policy.

A Greek immigrant who settled in the Boston area, he founded and ran Thermo Electron for 43 years, a major provider of analytical instruments from a master analyst who co-wrote a thermodynamics textbook and lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His economic expertise was self-taught but achieved enough to earn the respect of world-class economists such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, with him he co-wrote papers.

As a CEO, he became a venture capitalist too and encouraged ideas to use Thermo’s technology, that led to two dozen majority-owned companies with their own stock-market listings that worked through the 1990s before some of the ventures floundered and investors tired of the complexity, the paper noted.

“We got carried away with our own success,” Hatsopoulos told the New York Times in 1999, when, besieged by shareholder activists, he retired at 72 and watched as uccessors dismantled the company and merged it into Thermo Fisher Scientific.

He didn’t fade away though. Instead, he acquired a tiny Swiss company that developed technology for pumps based on magnetic levitation, used in microelectronics and other fields, still burning with ideas and churning out results.

Georgios Nikolaos Hatzopoulos was born Dec. 2, 1926, in Athens and later changed the spelling of his last name and used George as his first. His father was an executive at a commuter-railroad company.
As a child, his hero was Thomas Edison, who inspired him to make image projectors out of cellophane, preferring that to sports, an activity he thought was a waste of time.

When he was a teen, Greece was occupied by the Nazis, prompting him to secretly make radio receivers with scavenged parts to listen to banned BBC newcasts while he and his family survived on beans, chickpeas and cabbage as many Greeks starved with shortages of food confiscated by the occupiers.

After the war, he studied at the National Technical University of Athens before winning a scholarship allowing him to enroll in 1948 at MIT, where he earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

After working out some visa problems – which required him to serve briefly in the US Army after he was mistakenly drafted, he worked on an oil tanker and became a US citizen in 1954.

At a party for Greek expatriates, he met Daphne Phylactopoulos, a Wellesley College math major and the daughter of his former English tutor in Athens. They married in 1959.

HIS OWN WAY

His doctoral thesis described his research into ways to convert heat directly into electricity and helped form the basis of Thermo Electron, founded in 1956, the paper noted.

Hatsopoulos’ management style was to hire bright people, identify a major problem, such as heart disease, then try to invent technology to deal with it. That led to devices used to keep hearts pumping while patients waited for transplants. When environmental legislation in the 1970s required car makers to measure emissions, Thermo raced to invent measurement devices.
Other products included bomb detectors, wound dressings and mammography machines but it wasn’t all success as some ventures, such as a laser hair-removal business, failed, but it didn’t deter him to keep thinking of others.

Hatsopoulos liked to form separately listed subsidiaries to motivate his smartest executives by letting them run their own shows. He sold minority stakes to raise capital, using the spinoffs to share share accounting, legal and other corporate services with the parent.

In the 1980s, wanting to know why Japanese manufacturers were beginning to surpass American companies, he jumped into macroeconomic studies with help from MIT and Harvard economists.
He found U.S. companies’ capital costs were sometimes triple those of the Japanese, partly because Japanese investors didn’t demand quick returns on investment with Americans always looking at quarterly results instead of the long run.

He proposed tax-code changes to encourage Americans to save more and companies to invest with the additional capital in banks, and argued that huge federal deficits sucked up savings that would be better used if invested in enterprise.

His economic expertise helped land him the job of Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 1988. He is survived by his wife, two children, four grandchildren and his brother John, a former Thermo Electron executive.

He passed on his methods to his children, who weren’t eager to ask for his help with homework, the paper said, because he didn’t believe in simple answers.

“My dad always started with first principles, re-deriving Pythagoras’s Theorem from scratch before working his way through the history of math,” recalled his daughter, Marina, making sure his dynamics lived on.