Inventor of the Week Archive
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Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer
Physicist George Edward Alcorn, Jr. is best known for his development of the imaging x-ray spectrometer. Born on March 22, 1940 to working class parents, Alcorn was an excellent student and star athlete. He was awarded an academic scholarship to Occidental College in Pasadena, California, where he completed his B.A. in Physics in 1962. From there, Alcorn pursued graduate studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He earned his master’s degree in nuclear physics in 1963, and his Ph.D. in atomic and molecular physics in 1967.
While a student Alcorn worked as a research engineer for North American Rockwell’s Space Division. There he conducted computer analysis of launch trajectories and orbital mechanics for missiles produced by the company, such as the Titan I and II, Saturn IV, and Nova. After completing his doctoral degree he worked as a senior scientist with Philco-Ford, then with Perkin-Elmer, and later with IBM. In 1978, he joined NASA.
At NASA Alcorn developed the imaging x-ray spectrometer. An x-ray spectrometer assists scientists in identifying a material by producing an x-ray spectrum of it, allowing it to be examined visually. This is especially advantageous when the material is not able to be broken down physically. Alcorn patented his “method for fabricating an imaging x-ray spectrometer” in 1984. He was cited for his method’s innovative use of the thermomigration of aluminum. For this achievement he was recognized with the NASA/GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) Inventor of the Year Award.
Alcorn is credited with more than 20 inventions, and holds at least eight U.S. and international patents, many of these related to the semiconductor industry. For instance, he developed an improved method of fabrication employing laser drilling, and a process for improving the process of plasma etching. At NASA Alcorn has served as deputy project manager for advanced development, responsible for developing new technologies for the space station “Freedom,” as well as the GSFC Evolution Program, which evaluates and plans the space station’s continued development. Since 1992, he has served as chief of Goddard's Office of Commercial Programs and continues to hold this position as of this writing. Here he oversees technology transfer, small business innovation research, and commercial use of space programs.
In addition to his work with NASA, Alcorn is heavily involved with academics and with community service. In 1973, he was invited to be IBM Visiting Professor in Electrical Engineering at Howard University. He accepted, and has held positions at Howard ever since, eventually rising to the rank of full professor. He is also a professor in the engineering department at the University of the District of Columbia. He continues to contribute to efforts in recruiting women and minority scientists and engineers, and founded the Saturday Academy, a weekend honors math and science training program for inner-city middle school students. He also works with the Meyerhoff Foundation, which encourages African American males interested in pursuing doctorates in science and engineering.