William Hyzer is a U.S. Navy Veteran, Engineer, Physicist, World-Renowned Inventor, Photographer, and Author.
The following are some of the many awards and honors given to William Hyzer:
- E.I Du Pont Gold Medal Award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers – 1969
- Honorary Doctorate from the Chinese Academy of Science – 1979
- Honorary Master of Photography Degree from the Professional Photographers of America – 1981
- Engineer of the Year from the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers – 1981
- Scientist of the Year by Britannica – 1982
- Clifford L. Freeche Education Award from the Biological Photographic Association – 1997
- Haskell M. Pitluck Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences – 2013
Where were you born?
I was born in Janesville, Wisconsin at 136 S. Garfield Avenue.
Both my wife’s family and mine were Rock County families. Originally, way back, my family were Hessian soldiers, but in the end, they defected. They came from New York and then settled in Rock County. One of my early relatives had a cabin at Carver’s Rock, overlooking the creek there. They had come from Bradford, NY and then named the Bradford Township in Wisconsin.
What are some of your childhood memories?
I enjoyed doing whatever boys did. We had some vacant lots in our area at that time, because it was kind of on the edge of town. We played football there, and at the bottom of the hill, there was a tennis court. The people there let us use it, so it was practically our own tennis court! I had good friends here, like J.P. Cullen, who I grew up with. He lived just a half a block away, and Peter Cunningham and Dick Douglas of Douglas Hardware Store.
My brother was 9 years older. We were very close as brothers, even though we were a great deal apart in age. He went to Janesville High School, Janesville High School on Main Street. By the time he went to college, I was still in grade school.
I went to Roosevelt School in the year that it first opened. It was only about 3 blocks away from home. Then for a time, for about one year, I was at Jefferson School, which was the original Janesville High School that my mother and father attended. That is where Jefferson Park is now. I graduated in 1943 from the Janesville High School on Main Street.
What were some of your activities in high school?
I enjoyed playing tennis and could have been on the tennis team, but my interest was in photography. I was the photographer for The Phoenix, which was the yearbook. We started a photography club and I also started a science club and I was president of each of those. I didn’t have time for sports, except for attending school games.
At the time, I was rather shy of girls, so I didn’t attend many school dances. I had always wanted a sister, but being born as late as I was, I never had one. My friends all had sisters. I think if I’d had a sister, I wouldn’t have been so shy around girls. We had organized dance classes at school, and I attended those.
I was interested in science, and my brother was a chemist. While in college at the University of Wisconsin, in the early 1940’s, my brother took a class in photography and taught me some things about it. I was fascinated by the idea that one could take film, put it in a developing agent and see that image come up!
Tell me about your military service.
At the time there was a government program called V12. At one time, across the entire country, you could take an exam. It was given simultaneously to all participants from all the different states to avoid possible cheating. If you did well, then you could choose the service you wanted to be in, you could get a college education and a commission in the service. This was in the early 1940’s, after Pearl Harbor.
After graduating from high school in 1943, I went into the Navy and chose to attend the University of Wisconsin to study Chemical Engineering. I attended classes dressed in my Navy uniform. You could complete your entire college education in 2 and 2/3 years because you’d have 3 semesters a year.
When we graduated, we’d get a commission from the Navy and go aboard ship. But, they didn’t really need chemical engineers, and instead wanted other types. So, I transferred to the University of Minnesota and changed majors to Electrical Engineering. I finished up there and then served in the Pacific. The war ended just about the time I got my commission.
I can remember the day the war ended. I was at the University of Minnesota, coming back from class to the hall where we stayed. Another sailor came up and said, “They just dropped a big bomb on Japan! It was a terrible thing. It was a nuclear weapon!” We knew nothing about that at that time. That’s when I had first heard about it.
After graduation, I was commissioned as an Engineering Officer and went to Pearl Harbor on a weather ship. The meteorological observatory vessel would go out into the Pacific, in one of 3 locations. The purpose was to give a weather forecast to the flying bombers. We’d spend maybe a month out there, taking observations and sending up weather balloons. I was only 20 years old. Everyone was older than I, but in such a position you learn fast.
We spent a lot of time out at sea. I also happened to also be Commissary Officer, and we’d run short on rations and had to get by with what we had. Water was always a problem because we had to distill our own water on the ship. We would spend several weeks at sea. It was a very worthwhile time and I learned a lot. Things could go wrong on a ship and we had to anticipate and adjust. It was all very good training.
What did you do after serving in the Navy?
My real interest in engineering was research. So, after the Navy, I went back to the University of Wisconsin and earned a degree in Physics, graduating in 1948. I put physics and engineering together, which is very useful. I loved research, anything involving digging into a subject and discovering things about it. As an engineer, I could apply that knowledge. I did my graduate work there and was then offered a job at the Parker Pen Company.
I was Parker Pen’s Chief Physicist in the Research Department. This was after the war. Though you think of the company as manufacturing pens, there were other things going on there. Kenneth Parker was president at that time. His son, Dan, was my age and I knew him well. Kenneth would give me anything I could possibly think of for a new product that they could possibly manufacture. He wanted to expand. So, I invented several things.
Tell me about some of your work at Parker Pen.
In that particular time, we were very concerned at that time that the Russians would drop a bomb on us. People in Janesville were building bomb shelters in their basements and in their backyards. At that time, I was already married and living in Columbus Circle.
So, one of the ideas I came up with at the time was called a dosimeter. I told Kenneth Parker and said that I had a way to develop the product. He said, “Go ahead!” So, I got a patent on it. The government took an interest in it.
It was a device that would measure the amount of radioactivity a person had been exposed to. It was measured in roentgens and the dosimeter would tell you the minimal amount of radioactivity dosage that would cause certain symptoms and such. Then, depending on what you received, you could go in for treatment.
We had created the process to mass produce these and, if I recall, the government thought there’d be a market for about 300 million dosimeters a year! Parker Pen was very excited about this.
However, the government changed their minds because they discovered that people could fake their amounts of exposure by holding it under an X-ray machine or overheating the dosimeter. So, they decided to base hospital admission on symptoms instead. So, that destroyed our chances for producing them.
We also developed a camera at Parker Pen at that time. I worked on that project, as well. Additionally, I did a lot of work on pens and writing instruments.
What did you do after Parker Pen?
I had a lot of interest in going into business for myself. So, I left Parker Pen when I was about 27 years old. I decided to specialize in high-speed photography, and became a consultant in that.
I ended up working all over the world, consulting and lecturing on various topics.
What were some of your other well-known inventions?
I hold the patent on the Honeywell Round Thermostat, which is still the world’s most popular thermostat. The research division up in Minneapolis had been having a problem, so I came up with a solution for the thermostat, basically a whole new process and got a patent on it. It’s remarkable that it hasn’t changed over the years.
They were so thankful for my solution and asked if there was anything they could do for me. I said, “One thing I’d like to do is to anticipate anything that could go wrong with that thermostat, so that if anything went wrong in the future, we’d have a solution for it.” It’s been working well all this time. I continued to consult for Honeywell up to my retirement.
The City of Janesville, and other cities, have used a sewer pipe camera that I invented. It’s been very useful for investigating a breakage in pipes, which they’d rather send the camera in to figure out the problem before digging.
The “NASA Bug” is an interesting story. I was a consultant for the Department of Defense. I was to visit every research facility within the Dept. of Defense, including NASA, with the idea that they would put this together as a book. And I wrote the book for that.
The issue was that the government being so big, it had several research projects going and one group could be working on a problem and develop a special instrument just for that project. Then once it was over, they had no use for it, and would store it away. There might be another group working on its own, with no idea that the other group had created an instrument that could be useful to their project, as well.
So, the idea was that with this book they could find out what all research groups were working on. I traveled all over the country to NASA and desert testing grounds and such.
I love research, so when someone has an interesting problem, I like to do research on it. In England, they had a program with a panel of experts from all sorts of fields together, and a radio audience could write in with a question for the panel. Well, during one of the question/answer sessions, someone came up with the question, “How does a fly land on the ceiling?” The panel was stumped, and they couldn’t answer it. If you talk to a bar room observer, they think they know how, but it’s more complicated than that.
With my high-speed photography background, I decided to research it. I planned to photograph the fly, but I had to find a way to get the fly to land exactly where I wanted it at a certain time. There’s a lot of biology to perfect this thing. I discovered how it happened and published an article in Science magazine. I knew that the previous theories were wrong.
I found out that a fly, with its six legs, it flies into the ceiling, nearly perpendicular, and hits it with his forelegs and the inertia carries it the rest of the way. NASA contacted me after seeing the article and wanted to know more about my research. They were working on a moon landing module. They named that first module “The Bug” after my research project with the fly.
Another project I worked on was with National Geographic. They were doing a series on the North Pole and there had been some controversy as to whether or not Admiral Robert Perry was the first to reach the North Pole. So, they brought me in on the research. I was just donating my time.
Using photographs that Perry took, I was able to analyze the shadows, along with the dates and times of the photos, as Perry was very good about keeping such records on his photographs. Using those shadows, I could determine that there was no question he was at the pole.
I used the tennis court at Palmer Park to do my research and studied shadows of poles I set up there. They used some of my photographs of our tennis courts in Janesville to feature my research.
I looked at high-speed photography as a way to get in the door of larger corporations, to be able to apply some of my expertise in other scientific areas.
My most recent invention is the ABFO No. 2, or better known as the Bite Mark Scale, a tool to help identify bodies through dental records from bite marks left on victims.
It has not been patented, I just created it to help track down criminals, and I did not profit from it. I didn’t want to limit its application by owning it. I received an international award for it. The scale is now widely used in crime labs, medical examiners’ offices and courtrooms all over the world.
Tell me the story of “The Winning Shot”, your famous bullet photo.
I took photos of bullets going through light bulbs, apples and all kinds of things. Life Magazine called me and said, “We’re doing a series of gun control, do you have a photo of a bullet coming right at you?” I told them I didn’t know of one, but that I could do it. However, they needed it within a week.
So, I decided to develop such a photo at the same time. It got some publicity and won first prize in an international scientific contest in San Diego, California. Then it was published on the front cover of Science News! They came up with the title, “The Winning Shot.”
Others became aware of it, and eventually, I got a request from the National Enquirer, who wanted it. I was away at the time, but my wife got the call and when I got back, I researched the magazine.
My wife asked me, “So, what are you going to do?” I wasn’t sure I wanted it in that magazine. And I said, “I’m don’t want my picture in that magazine. I’m going to set the price so high they won’t want to do it.”
The next day I got a call from the editor. I gave them the price, and after a short time he agreed! So, I was stuck. Then I told them that before I do it, I wanted to know exactly what the caption would be. So, they paid me right away and were very professional about it and kept their word. So, it appeared in the magazine.
About a month later, I received a second, identical check. I thought it was a mistake, but they told me that they received such a popular response to it that they felt they didn’t pay me enough! Their main office was in Florida, and on a visit down there I went to see them. They were very respectful and professional and all.
Tell me about your special January showcase at Cedar Crest.
I wrote about this particular photo, “The Winning Shot”, so I can explain exactly how it was done. Cedar Crest is having a showcase on it during the month of January, 2018. My sons, Jim, John, and I built a display for it. I write a column once a month for the newsletter here and this article came out on January 1st.
Some 25 small photos will be displayed in the showcase, plus some larger framed photos. My son built a 3-dimensional model showing how the photo was made. It’s free and open to the public, right next to the coffee shop. The showcase will be on display from January 2nd through the end of the month.
Of all the inventions you’ve seen in your lifetime, what are some inventions you believe to be most significant?
I’ve often wondered if the internet is the greatest invention. However, we should have been able to consider the issues that might accompany this kind of access. It happened so fast and furiously, people didn’t consider the problems getting out of control.
In the photographic field, I believe the improvements with digital cameras are tremendous!
Besides being a creative inventor and a talented photographer, you’re also a world-famous author. Tell me about that.
Over the years I have authored 4 books. One of my books is on high-speed photography titled, Engineering in Scientific High-speed Photography. It’s been translated to several different languages, Russian, Chinese and others. I lectured a series of seminars in China in the ‘70’s, as well. Chapter by chapter, the book defined high-speed photography forever.
It became extremely popular for the U.S. missile program, for rocketing and so forth, because it was heavily dependent on high-speed photography.
At one time, I was writing 3 different columns for magazines. Initially, I did it to get my name out there. I wrote for one called Photo Methods. I wrote for them for about 40 years, one column a month. I also wrote for one called Research and Development. That was an entirely different thing, all about research. Another magazine I wrote for was Optical Engineering.
So, I wrote for these magazines mainly because it was easy to do, and I could write about anything I wanted. And that’s how I got my name recognized internationally.
Tell me about your travels.
My wife and I traveled to so many locations around the world, due to the nature of my work. I had a rule. I’d say, “If you invite me out to speak, you have to bring my wife, too.” And they would pay both of our ways. You don’t get one without the other. We both really enjoyed traveling.
I liked South Africa very much. It’s diversified, and a great place to see wild animals. I’ve been to other parts of Africa, but it’s very controlled there, and I liked South Africa. I also enjoyed Australia and New Zealand.
Mary was a really good companion and also loved to travel. She was very good with people. We were married for 61 years.
How did you meet your wife? Tell me a bit about your family.
Well, her father was a jeweler, of Dewey and Bandt Jewelers. He was Bandt. Her mother had died when she was young. I went to school with her sister, Betty. We had gone to the same church at Cargill, but I never knew Betty had a sister.
One time, when I was around my early 20’s, I went to a wedding. Mary happened to be there. The next day I asked if she’d like to go to Riverside Park to play tennis. It was love at first sight, no question about it! We were married the next year at Cargill Church.
Mary had taught business comptometer, the precursor of computer technology, at Janesville Vocational School, which later became Blackhawk Technical School. Later, she was my business manager for my engineering consulting business.
Interestingly, my wife babysat Mrs. Ryan’s children when Paul was born. The Ryans were our best friends at that time. We were very close to Paul Sr. and Betty. I just spoke to Betty not too long ago.
We had 4 children, one died when he was around 5 years old. My son, Jim, lives in town and is doing the same sort of thing I did. He received his Doctor of Engineering degree over in Europe. His office is in the Parker Pen building. My older son, David, is an architect and an engineer. He is president of Strang Inc., an architectural company in Madison. My other son, John, is the only one whose interest was in biology. He worked at Argon National Laboratories, and was head of his department there.
What were some of your community activities here in Rock County?
I wasn’t involved in a great deal because my schedule was pretty heavy, but I used to give talks to all the service clubs. I didn’t belong to any of them, however, because I was involved in research and couldn’t break from doing that for meetings. I’d give lectures on high-speed photography and such.
Additionally, I had been on the Building Committee for the ‘new’ Cargill United Methodist Church.
Interestingly, my Uncle Ed was friends with one of the Tallmans. He had a letter from Mr. Tallman that told of his trip on a ship in winter, somewhere north of Canada, and in his letter to Ed, he talked about the climate difference and such. I donated that letter to the Rock County Historical Society. It was really interesting to find that letter.
What are your secrets to a good, long life?
I believe it’s doing what you like to do. I love my work! You should love what you do in life. I’m the longest-living member of my family, that’s for sure.
What is it about Rock County that keeps you here?
I enjoy the area; my business was here and I have family here. We had a place in Florida where we’d go in the winter, but, we kept coming back. There’s also an advantage to a small town. If someone doesn’t know how to reach me, people in town know my name and can probably find me.
I’ve lived here all my life, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“I loved research…I love my work! You should love what you do in life.” ~ William Hyzer