USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Gregorio Zara — Filipino physicist and aeronautical engineer

Creator of the first videophone ( a forerunner of such video telecommunication applications as Skype, Webcam and videoconferencing) and discoverer of the physical law known as the “Zara Effect.”

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Back in the 1950′s, the videophone — a telephone device that allows you to see the individual you are speaking with in real (or near-real) time — was a mere dream of science fiction.  But physicist and aeronautical engineer Gregorio Zara, one of the Philippines’ most celebrated inventors, began to change all that in 1955 when he introduced the first videophone. Gregorio, the creator of other early models of futuristic technology ( including a solar battery, a talking robot, and an airplane engine powered by biofuel), was born in 1902  in Lipa City, Batangas, a province in the Philippines. After graduating as valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at the University of the Philippines, and later went on the U.S. and France to complete his training in engineering and physics.  Already he was formulating innovative ideas of the future that would hallmark his career.

Why He’s Important: Gregorio is perhaps best known as the inventor of the videophone, which he patented in 1955 as a “photo phone signal separator network.”  Five years after he invented the instrument, AT&T began work on commercial application of a video phone (or “picturephone”). The company introduced the video phone to the public in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair, but the device did not become a viable marketable item until about 30 years later when it was integrated with the internet as the digital revolution took off.  Video phones are especially popular today with the hearing impaired, in addition to being rooted in such familiar technologies as cell phones, telemedicine, Skype, distant learning and videoconferencing.

Other Achievements:  In 1930, Gregorio discovered the physical law of electrical kinetic resistance (called the Zara Effect). “Kinetic electrical resistance is the resistance to the passage of electric current when contacts are in motion. Permanent electrical resistance manifests itself when contacts are at rest,” according to the online library Scribd.com in describing the Zara Effect.  His other noted achievements include:   inventing the earth induction compass (an instrument that is still used today in the aeronautical industry, specifically by pilots); contributing to the design of a robot called  Marex X-10 that walked, talked and responded to commands; developing an airplane engine powered by alcohol, and introducing a solar-powered battery, and solar water heater and stove.

Education: Gregorio earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1926 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), his Master’s of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan (graduating summa cum laude), and his Ph.D. in Physics from the Sorbonne University in Paris (again, graduating summa cum laude, or “Tres Honorable” — the first Filipino given that honor from the university). In addition to writing books on science and physics, he taught aeronautics at the American Far Eastern School of Aviation, and at Far Eastern University. He also served as vice president of FEATI University in Manila from 1946 through 1962. At the year of his death in 1978 he was named the Philippines’ National Scientist.

Discover other exciting role models in science and engineering at the USA Science & Engineering Festival by visiting www.usasciencefestival.org

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