Gordon Nevins Steele (1919 – 2015) | Passages

Gordon Nevins Steele was born May 1, 1919 in Santa Monica, Calif. His parents were William Nevins Steele and Ethel Bernice Kenner Steele. He passed away on Nov. 3, at his home in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Gordon was proud to be the grandson of John Corbet Steele, a founder of Santa Monica who arrived there in 1878. John was a blacksmith by trade. With only a sixth grade education he acquired a hotel, grocery store and invested in prime real estate. He served as postmaster and later became the third mayor of the city. Gordon was proud to have large blacksmith hands like his grandfather.

Gordon was preceded in death by his parents, only brother Keith, wives Betty Adamson Steele and Beverly Johnson Steele, and all other family members. He had no children.

Gordon graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1937, Santa Monica Junior College in 1940, and University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Chemistry in 1942.

In 1942, he was one of the several students hired by the Radiation Laboratory of the US Berkeley, under the mobilization plan of Nobel Prize winner Ernest Lawrence, for research and development of the separation of uranium isotopes by electromagnetic means.

Gordon was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on the Manhattan Project in April 1943. He arrived “before the fences”, badge number 129 of the 75,000 issued, as part of a select group of Berkeley who were considered “invaluable as trouble shooters”.

Gordon’s work embraced all phases of the pilot stage of mass separation of the isotope U-235. He contributed to the chemistry and analysis of new uranium compounds, served in production-recovery problems and designed production high vacuum systems for the purification of enriched materials. His successful work on a particular nitrogen analysis was conducted with an armed guard at the door of his laboratory. A profile and interview can be found under “Voices of the Manhattan Project”, at the Atomic Heritage Foundation website.

Gordon married Betty Adamson in September 1945. She passed away before their first anniversary. He remained at Oak Ridge until 1947, deeply involved in research of time-of-flight and trochoidal mass spectormeters for analytical work. He co-authored unclassified publications relating to these developments. Gordon was a volunteer with the local young men’s model airplane club.

After World War II, Gordon returned to California to work for Atomics International, Inc. He developed and patented a process for preparation of a moderator-fuel material for homogeneous reactors and co-authored classified papers on the effect of fission fragment damage on the thermal conductivity of graphite. He participated in the loading and criticality experiments of a heavy water nuclear reactor. Gordon designed, planned and participated in experiments performed in the Hanford, Washington nuclear reactor.

Gordon left North American Aviation and organized a company, Silver Plastics, to perform consulting and research in the use of high vacuum for electronic, optical and decorative applications. This work included transparent electrically conductive coatings, barrier layers for selenium rectifiers, photoconductor films for iconoscope tunes, deposition of optical films on plastic, metalizing of plastics and the protection of precision metal parts with thin films.

Gordon’s expertise resulted in a buy-out of his small company by national company, Servomechanisms, Inc. He was retained as a senior scientist. He explored the techniques of thin films and expanded his material’s capability and understanding of the kinetics of the deposition process. During this period work was undertaken involving ferroelectrics, semiconductors and thin film micro circuitry as well as the construction of many new vacuum devices. He was one of the first to employ electroluminescent vacuums for welding of refrectory metals. His work in materials led to the development of new thermoelectric materials for power generation. He published multiple technical papers in this field.

In 1963, Gordon co-founded Sigmatron, Inc., a thin-film research laboratory primarily engaged in the development of electroluminescent devices and techniques. Other fields of development include cathodoluminescent phosphors, electron transport properties of thin organic film, strain gauge films and plasma polymerized dielectric films. Electroluminescent lamps made under his direction were abroad the LEM vehicle that landed on the moon and his first XUV filters were flown on Skylab.

In 1973 he founded Luxel Corporation, a thin-film laboratory dedicated to the use of vacuum techniques to develop and fabricate soft x-ray, XUV and VUX filters primarily for satellite and space probe instruments. Credits include OSO satellite, Pioneer, Voyager space probe, Lunar Orbiter satellite, Apollo-Soyuz, Space Lab II and others.

Gordon relocated Luxel from Santa Barbara, California to Friday Harbor in 1978. He and his wife Beverly immersed themselves into the community and became integral supporters of the building and support of the San Juan Community Theater.

In 1987 Gordon sold Luxel. Without the children he had hoped to have, Luxel was his legacy. He was quietly proud that it continues to be the preeminent supplier of ultrathin foil filters and thermal evaporation equipment and remains headquartered in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Gordon enjoyed the San Juan Island Yacht Club, playing poker with a group of good friends, entertaining, dancing, opera, music, screaming down a roller coaster anywhere, beating Suzie Lefever in the San Juan County Fair Zucchini 500 race, discussions about the Periodic Table and life in general. He was a gem, an island heirloom, and truly a man for all seasons.

Gordon is survived by his longtime companion Wiloma Harrell and her family, two grandsons and five great grandchildren of his late wife Beverly and countless friends.

A special thanks to the staff and management of Village at the Harbour.

A Celebration of Life will be held at the San Juan Community Theatre on Friday, Nov., 13 from 4-5 p.m. Memorial contributions may be made to the San Juan Community Theater, Skagit Valley College Foundation for San Juan County vocational students, San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation for STEM projects of the San Juan County Fair.