Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Abraham Zarem, who made numerous contributions to the United States’ defense and space systems and had a decorated career in technology, business development, and management training, died in Los Angeles on March 8. At 106, he was Caltech’s oldest living alumnus.
Born in Chicago, Zarem was valedictorian of his undergraduate class at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), where he studied electrical engineering. He earned his doctorate at Caltech on the physical properties of the electric spark. Soon afterward, he brought his engineering expertise to the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s vast and secretive effort to build the first atomic bomb. The project’s success hastened the end of World War II.
After the war, he joined the staff of the United States Naval Ordnance Test Station at Pasadena, where he developed a camera shutter that would open for only one millionth of a second, enabling brief and rapidly changing phenomena to be captured on film. For this and other achievements, Eta Kappa Nu, the international honor society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, gave him the Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer Award in 1948.
After his work with the Navy, Zarem led the Southern California division of the Stanford Research Institute, conducting technological and economic studies related to land development, regional economic growth, air pollution, and other topics. In 1956, he founded Electro-Optical Systems (EOS), a company which developed a range of products for the U.S. government, including the “world’s first practical ion engine”—an experimental, high-energy thruster for spacecraft, a model of which now resides at the Smithsonian Institution. In his book America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites, Henry Richter (BS ’52, PhD ’56), who worked with Zarem at EOS, recalled him as an “unforgettable character” with “inexhaustible energy” who was constantly producing new ideas and devices. On their trips to Washington looking for projects and business at the Pentagon and other agencies, Richter wrote, “Dr. Zarem knew everyone and everyone knew him.”
Beginning in 1963, Zarem served as vice president and then senior vice president at Xerox Corporation, which had acquired EOS, overseeing acquisitions and business development. He left in 1970 to start a consulting business but returned as founder and CEO of the Xerox Development Corporation in 1975. Later, he served as founder and managing director of Frontier Associates, a strategic business management and development consultancy.
Throughout his life, Zarem served as an adviser and board member for various academic, governmental, and cultural institutions. For example, he was distinguished visiting executive in science and technology and senior adviser on technology transfer and commercialization for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA; distinguished senior adviser for neuroscience technology transfer for the UCLA Brain Research Institute; and a life trustee of the Los Angeles Opera. In addition to his Distinguished Alumni Award, which Caltech bestowed on him in 1969, he received many other honors, including honorary doctorates from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1987, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering “for distinguished achievements in developing and applying space power and propulsion devices, and for creation of sophisticated electro-optical night vision equipment.”
Robert Hanisee, a longtime executive at Trust Company of the West (now TCW Group), an asset management firm, knew Zarem for more than 50 years and was recruited by him for a number of projects, including serving on a Commercial Advisory Council for JPL. Reflecting on his life, Hanisee calls Zarem a Renaissance man, citing his scientific and professional accomplishments, mentorship of budding technologists and entrepreneurs, and support of the arts. He adds, “Abe was one of those larger-than-life characters whose simple presence could light up a room.”
Zarem is also remembered as a proud alumnus of Caltech, intimately familiar with its history and enthusiastic about its multidisciplinary approach to science and engineering. “Abe Zarem was instrumental in instilling in me and many others a vision for the future of science and technology which Caltech was singularly prepared to undertake,” says Mark Reinecke, a former senior director of development at the Institute. “It was a privilege to spend time with Dr. Zarem, a man and scholar of abundant energy and ideas.”
His survivors include his wife Esther and their children, Janet, David, and Mark.