James Hillier General Physics, Subatomic Particles, Optics, Biophysics, Theoretical Physics

Co-designed the first commercially available electron microscope in North America

The Story

While it was a German physicist who developed the basic principles of the electron microscope, both Canada and the United States can legitimately claim to be first in making it practical. The model for today's electron microscopes was first built at the University of Toronto, but the instrument was fully developed at Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in New Jersey.

Instead of focusing rays of light as an optical lens does, the electron microscope lens focuses a beam of electrons. Since the wavelengths of speeding electrons are much smaller than those of light, an electron microscope could reveal much smaller objects than the optical units of the day.

Hillier and his colleage Albert Prebus, with the guidance of Professor Eli Burton, worked on constructing an electron microscope while studying at U of T in the late 1930s. Their improved electron microscope produced resolutions usable in a lab. It had a magnification of 7000 times, significantly better than current optical microscopes which had a magnification of 2000 times.

Following completion of his doctorate, Hillier took this design to RCA at Camden, New Jersey and developed it into the prototype for the RCA production model. It was the beginning of a long, successful career with RCA.

Hillier also discovered the principle of the stigmator for correcting astigmatism of electron microscope objective lenses, invented the electron microprobe microanalyser, and was the first to picture tobacco mosaic viruses and an ultra-thin section of a single bacterium. He holds 40 patents.

Hillier became an American citizen in 1945.

Sources: Who’s Who in America 1994; Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 1982; Canada's Heirloom Collection.

The Person

August 22, 1915
Brantford, Ontario
Date of Death
January 15, 2007
Retired Executive Vice President and Sr. Scientist
RCA Labs, Princeton, NJ
  • BA, U of Toronto, 1937
  • MA, U of T, 1938
  • PhD,U of T, 1941
  • Inductee, National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1980
  • Albert Lasker Award, 1960
  • Commonwealth Award, 1980
Last Updated
May 14, 2020

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