The image of war often conjures up pops of gunfire, rolling green tanks, helicopters flying down to pick up a wounded soul and the brave men and women who accept the call to protect and serve our great nation. But there is a backstory to war, a tale of individuals that many never hear. The armor that protects the soldiers, the night vision in goggles and the remote surveillance equipment with all their tiny parts have to be made by someone before they can be used by our soldiers to defend our nation.
Donald Roy, a 1949 graduate from Houghton College with a major in chemistry, found his life course heading in the direction of military science, even though that wasn’t where he had originally planned. Roy spent two years during WWII making his way through North Africa, Sicily and Italy before coming to Houghton where his chemistry major was supported with a minor in anatomy and physiology. He never thought that his career would lead him into the public eye, particularly because he had a speech impediment. But he was all right with that. “I expected that I would work in an analytical laboratory,” Roy says. For a short while, he did.
He first found himself doing ulcer research at the University of Rochester Medical Center, but after three years, he joined the Eastman Kodak research group in the optical division. Here is where his work with infrared technology for optics in missiles, night vision weapons and high altitude surveillance began.
“My colleagues and I developed a series of six hot pressed polycrystalline infrared transmitting materials with the trade name Irtran 1-6,” Roy says. “Three of them were commercialized: Magnesium fluoride was used as the nose cone on the Sidewinder missile for twenty-five years. Zinc sulfide, now produced by an advanced process, is probably the most widely used material for night vision weapons, goggles and many other applications. ZnSe was used for high altitude surveillance photography on the U-2 follow-on, the SR-71 Spy Plane.”
Soon after developing these materials, Roy left Eastman Kodak to join CoorTek, then Coors Porcelain Company, in a research division. Coors was involved in producing alumina armor plates during the Vietnam War, but then became aware of the need for a lightweight armor for helicopter pilot protection and for an improved transparent armor. They developed boron carbide lightweight armor in an accelerated program and started the development of optical quality magnesium aluminate (spinel) for transparent armor. However, lack of raw materials and inadequate funding halted development.
Roy’s work with spinel and transparent armor has been an on and off again process that has traced through Operation Desert Storm and continued work with another company. In 1997, Roy was contacted by the Army Research Lab in Aberdeen, Md., to develop spinel as an infrared transmitting optical material and transparent armor, which is to say, to make spinel so that it could be used for night vision and infrared technology, and as transparent armor.
Now spinel can be found on “certain vehicles,” used as a ballistic protection (you’d want this rather than bulletproof glass), as well as being placed on various military aircraft optical and surveillance systems. “It is being considered for advanced space craft technology,” says Roy. His work in this field has opened the doors to what the military is able to do and how it can best protect our troops.
“The Lord has truly directed me on a path that I could not have imagined sixty-four years ago,” Roy states as he looks back at this time. Besides co-authoring 16 patents, and despite a speech impediment, he has made about 30-40 technical presentations in the U.S., Europe and Israel.
Through all he has accomplished, Roy holds close to his heart his wife Martha (class of ’49), who he says is “wonderfully dedicated” to him and his work. He says that she “still, very beautifully, plays piano” in church and other functions with an air of sentimentality. Both he and Martha have been blessed with five children, 12 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
Roy is now winding down his sixty-four year career as a research manager and consultant to the United States Department of Defense and the Israel Department of Defense. “I could have had another phase in my career,” jokes Roy, “if I had agreed to cooperate and ‘hang out at strategic locations’ for the CIA.”