Sandia Labs celebrates life of 'clean room' inventor

Posted at: 11/26/2012 6:03 PM
Updated at: 11/26/2012 6:48 PM
By: Joseph Lynch, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Photo: Willis Whitfield
Photo: Willis Whitfield

Sandia Laboratories are known for a lot of technological breakthroughs and milestones. None may be as important to modern life as Willis Whitfield's "clean room".

It's traces are in electronics, pharmaceuticals and even space exploration. Today they celebrated it's invention and the man dubbed as "Mr. Clean".

It was 50 years ago that physicist Willis Whitfield built what he referred to as an "Ultra-Cleanroom." Like most breakthroughs, Whitfield was problem solving; tasked to prevent microscopic dust particles from wreaking havoc on nuclear weapons systems in the late 50's. His son Jim Whitfield is still amazed, especially considering where his dad came from.

"He grew up on a farm of all places in the 1920s and 30s. So going from that to being a leader and great advancer of technology is extraordinary from my perspective," Jim said.

Within a few years, Whitfield's "clean room" technology hit the marketplace. A clean room is a contolled environment that keeps pollutants, especially dust, out. Today the fifty-year technology is credited with enabling the entire electronics world and transforming the pharmaceutical industry. Whitfield passed away just a couple of weeks ago. His widow Belva Whitfield said he never imagined the impact his invention would have.

"Never, hahaha. Never did I ever think. So It was a surprise to him I think," Belva said.

Sandia Labs' Gil Herrera said all you have to do is look around to see Whitfield's impact.

"It's a huge legacy. We're all healthier because of Willis. We have the internet because of Willis. We have computers because of Willis. What more could you say?" Herrera said.