By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
George Charles Szego, 88, a chemical engineer who founded a pioneering solar technology company in Warrenton and who persuaded former President Jimmy Carter to install solar collectors on the roof of the White House, died April 23 of cardiac arrest at Kent General Hospital in Dover, Del.
Dr. Szego "has a tendency to end up on science's most popular frontiers," The Washington Post noted in 1977. A decade earlier, as America prepared to land a man on the moon, he prepared studies on internal combustion engines, fuel cells and space-age propulsion systems for the Institute for Defense Analyses. "I was known as Mr. Space Power," he told The Post.
In 1970, he founded InterTechnology/Solar Corp., hoping to capitalize on America's budding curiosity about solar energy and other alternatives to fossil fuel. The company's headquarters was a converted Safeway store in Warrenton, and by the late 1970s, ITC/Solar was competing with General Electric, Honeywell and other industry leaders for government research contracts.
"Technicians from giant energy companies often make the trip to Warrenton to sit at his feet," Forbes Magazine said in 1978.
At the time of the Forbes article, Dr. Szego's company had exclusive rights to a system for generating electrical power through osmotic pressure, a process that relies on forcing liquid through a semi-permeable membrane. The potential market, he told Forbes, could be $1 trillion.
His company manufactured plates used in solar panels and solar-powered hot water heaters. Dr. Szego also saw promise in what would come to be called biofuel, and he traveled around the world promoting the use of marginal land to grow a special breed of plant that could be used to power boilers.
In 1979, ITC/Solar received a $28,000 contract to install 32 solar thermal collectors on the roof of the West Wing of the White House, and the president inaugurated the solar hot water system June 20 of that year. Dr. Szego told Energy Design Update years later that the equipment performed well. "The collectors were cranking out hot water a mile a minute," he said.
The collectors were removed in 1986 to repair a roof leak and were never reinstalled. White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan "felt that the equipment was just a joke," Dr. Szego recalled, "and he had it taken down."
George Charles Szego was born in Budapest and was 2 when his political emigre parents brought him to the United States. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, he enrolled at City College of New York.
A child of the Depression, he ran out of money after two years at CCNY and took a job in a plant in Sheridan, Wyo., that recovered non-ferrous metals. The job was supposed to be a brief hiatus from higher education, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor altered his plans.
After enlisting in the Army, he was sent to Camp Sibert, Ala., for chemical warfare training, but when Army brass realized he was fluent in Hungarian and German, he was transferred to the Army Intelligence Center at Camp Ritchie, Md.
Szego, then a sergeant, landed at Omaha Beach in June 1944, a few weeks after D-Day, and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. During combat operations, he led an intelligence detachment that captured teams of Nazis impersonating GIs. Driving stolen Jeeps and wearing U.S. uniforms, the Germans were bent on assassinating high-ranking American officers.
Before the Nuremberg trials, Dr. Szego interrogated a number of captured Nazis at Oberursel, including Hermann Goering. The Luftwaffe commander, Dr. Szego recalled, was "a mere shadow of his former 320-pound self."
Returning to civilian life, he received a bachelor's degree in 1947 from the University of Denver. He received a master's degree in 1950 and a doctorate in 1956, both in chemical engineering from the University of Washington. He worked for General Electric, TRW Space Technology Laboratories and the Institute for Defense Analyses before founding ITC/Solar.
From 1972 to 1981, Dr. Szego and his first wife -- along with a number of foster children -- lived at Oakwood, an 18th-century estate in Fauquier County once owned by Abraham Lincoln's private physician and where both Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe slept. Dr. Szego raised purebred horses and cattle on the 435-acre property and built a solar-heated swimming pool with 10 collectors.
Mr. Szego lived in Annapolis from 1982 to 2006, when he moved to Delaware.
ITC/Solar began experiencing financial difficulties in 1978 and went out of business in 1988. Dr. Szego continued to write, teach and lecture on the peril of global warming, the importance of energy conservation and the promise of solar power. He also taught chemical engineering at Howard University.
His marriage to Marion "Meg" Gowell Szego ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Alexandra Windpainter, died in 2006.
Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Diane Jones Szego of Dover; a sister; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.