Stanley Hiller, the XXth Century Alchemist
Alchemy, a high tech industry of the Middle Ages, to make gold out of garbage, was mostly abandoned and defunct during the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution. But the story of projects that Stanley Hiller undertook and told me about, qualifies him, in my book, for the title above.
Let me start with the Hiller Highlands. To put you in the right frame of magnitude, this was probably the least successful of all projects that were planned and created by Stanley Hiller. He is the father of the better known Stanley Hiller Junior, who invented and developed the Hiller helicopter during the World War 2 and grew it into a major helicopter industry. But Stanley Hiller Senior was quite an inventor himself. When I bought my lot at 75 Hiller Drive in 1963, and during construction of my home in 1964, I learned quite a few things from him about his life.
As the student he worked summers bottling mineral water some place around Mount Shasta. Yes, there was bottled water around in those days! That must have put him on the long stretch of projects, always using whatever was available for free from which he could make a usefull product which people would buy. What a concept! The first very profitable project happened during the 30's Depression. Fruit canning was already big in those days, peaches and apricots primarily. Around the canneries there were mountains of stones (or pits) of no food value. Canneries were happy to see Stanley Hiller cart them away, perhaps they even paid him. But the real value was in the almond-like centers hiding inside those hard peach pits. Hiller crushed them and made almond paste which was in high demands by the cosmetics industry. Apparently Helena Rubinstein cosmetics became one of his main customers. But Hiller's inventiveness did not stop there. As the years led into War and the mountains of now-cracked pit shells grew, another inventions helped Stanley to make more dollars out of the same refuse. The War effort coincided with the evolution of electronics, and the old radio tubes, diodes, pentodes, klystron tubes and such needed high grade carbon filaments. Hiller tried roasting the shells and result was outstanding: he produced the best grade carbon for the electronics, exactly what the industry needed. To handle the volume he gently angled a very very long steel pipe and made it revolve over gas burners. On one end went the pits on the other end came out hi-tech carbon.
During this time, his young son Stanley was inventing a helicopter right in the back yard of the mansion which still stands today as the main house of the Bentley School. Stanley Senior did not tell me much about this project, but he did show me his own contribution to aviation. On the island of Alameda he and Curtis (or was it Martin?) invented a sea plane. This probably happened in the 20's. Next time you visit Smithsonian Aerospace museum, check the plaque for Stanley Hiller Sr. The dates are there.
But for us who live in the Hiller Area, the most interesting story is how it came about. Stanley kept on inventing and sometimes in the 50s invented a single-channel underground utilities. He told me that when he applied for the patent, he found out that two patents were filed but have expired. One was from Edison and the other from Westinghouse. As far as I know, Tesla wanted to go wireless. But PG&E was not convinced about Hiller's patent. They told him, if you put water, electricity, gas, telephone into a single channel, electrostatic forces could cause serious erosion. Basically, it will not work. Stanley did not despair but he decides to show them. And much against the advice and wishes of his wife's Opal he stripped down part of the backyard -- a small canyon which you can see on the 1935 photo www.prah.net/hiller -- and constructed at a great expense around 1960 (or 61?) twenty-seven lots, all with Hiller underground utilities. Alas, PG&E refused to connect and so the lots stood unsold until 1963, the year that finally the PG&E resistance faded away.
As with everything else Hiller touched, it worked. The utilities have been working flawlessly for the last 40 years. During this time, Stanley kept an eye on the condominia development and continued converting garbage into gold. There was a project with fishing industry in Philippines, and probably many others I never heard about. His final project was in Florida where the waterways were being choked by water hyacinths. He died around 1972 and, as far as I know, before that problem was solved. The solution is still waiting for some youth who could be torn away from playing video games and do something useful...
Borut Prah, March 2005