Meredith Gourdine: How an Olympian and scientist transformed global firefighting and air travel

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 12, 2024 7:39 PM EDT
Meredith Gourdine
Meredith Gourdine was a scientist and an inventor.

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, Meredith Gourdine was a few weeks shy of 23 when he won silver for the long jump. He was just an inch and half off the gold medalist’s best jump. Meredith had come so close and missing out on the ultimate prize would have pained him. But at the same time as well, he was an undergraduate Engineering Physics student at Cornell whose ambitions would soon change the way we manage visibility at airports and fire scenes.

Gourdine was born on September 26, 1929 in New Jersey. His father, who was a painter and janitor, and taught him the vitality of a strong work ethic. He would help out his father after classes during high school and often worked eight-hour days. His father, however, believed that education was more important than becoming a laborer and encouraged young Meredith to stay in school.

That was good advice because Gourdine consequently excelled at his academic endeavors.

Beyond the classroom, Gourdine competed in track and field and swimming during his senior year. He turned down a swimming scholarship to the University of Michigan, deciding to enroll at Cornell University. He paid his way through college for two years before receiving a track and field scholarship following his sophomore year. Gourdine was chosen to represent Team USA at the 1952 Summer Olympics. His agility earned him the nickname “The Flash”, from the speedy comic character.

He graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Engineering Physics a year after the Olympics. Gourdine served as an officer in the United States Navy for a while. He then earned a Ph.D. in Engineering Science in 1960 from the California Institute of Technology. He went on to take on a role as a Senior Research Scientist at the CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and later, Lab Director for the Plasmodyne Corporation.

At this point, Gourdine’s entrepreneurial vision kicked in. With a $200,000 loan raised from family and friends in 1964, he opened Gourdine Laboratories. The laboratory pioneered research into the field of electrogasdynamics – the motion of gas molecules that have been ionized under high pressure.

The point for Gourdine the scientist was that Gourdine the entrepreneur should be able to invent practical solutions to every day problem based on the transfer of thermal energy. This process led him to receive over 70 foreign and U.S. patents.

Perhaps, none of his inventions made him prouder than the electrostatic precipitator systems known as Incineraid, and was used to remove smoke from burning buildings, and eliminate fog from airport runways. The Incineraid was an engineering technique that relied on atmospheric electricity to bring in new air by pushing out the old. The system created clean air and a clear area by negatively charging smoke or fog particles and causing them to fall.

This invention, for decades, simplified and made firefighting and air travel safer for personnel and the public. Some pf the new ways of overcoming fog and fire smokes have been based on Gourdine’s invention.

He was also responsible for the Focus Flow Heat Sink which was used to cool down computer chips.

In addition to his groundbreaking innovations, Gourdine was engaged in civic work. He served on President Nixon’s Task Force for Small Business, President Johnson’s Advisory Panel on Energy and the Army Science Board. He has been inducted into the Black Inventors Hall of Fame, The Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, and the Cornell University’s Hall of Fame.