Richard Hill would describe himself as an uninteresting, average man. At a casual glance, he may seem to be.
Until the official start of our interview, he was busy watering a group of tomato seedlings next to a large set of windows. The late afternoon sun streamed in, highlighting a nearly empty room filled with one out-of-place baby grand piano and the small tray of seedlings.
Look just a bit closer and the story isn’t so typical. The heating pad Hill uses to keep the seedlings warm, it turns out, was received in relation to his time as an expert witness in a trial.
Posters with an array of numbers on them, featuring hard-to-pronounce words such as ‘stochasticity’ and detailing some complicated thermodynamic problems, hang on the walls of the room.
Diagrams on the posters look surprisingly like a blueprint of the room they decorate.
Just beneath the surface, and with a little bit of digging, the clues on the posters tell an interesting story, indicating that the house was built decades ago in a pioneering set of experiments in green energy solutions, a project Hill worked on.
Hill, upon sitting down, hands over a piece of paper with five short paragraphs, detailing what he describes — in booming baritone — as “a few simple calculations.”
They illustrate an estimate of the per-person oil usage at the University of Maine, calculate the energy use that that entails and show how many acres of forest it would take to match that same energy amount. He figured out the calculations and wrote them up during a bit of spare time.
Richard Hill is 93 years old, a longtime resident of the state of Maine and a New York native. He attended college at Syracuse University in the ’30s, after which he worked for General Electric throughout World War II.
During his time at General Electric, he helped with calculations that would later go into some of the first jet engines. After that, in 1946, he became a professor at UMaine. Later on, he would become a specialist in nuclear reactors, an expert witness in a number of cases involving fires and a pioneer for green energy.
His initial switch to education, he says, came out of a desire to give a better one than he received.
“When I got out of college, I went to the General Electric company and they gave me a problem to do, which was to determine the efficiency of a diffuser — that is, as you take a fluid and put it through a channel and slow it down, the pressure rises,” Hill says. “So they gave me that problem to do, early on in my career. And so I did it, and I handed it back to the boss, and he said, ‘Well, that’s true for water, but it isn’t true for gas.’
“And I was just dumbfounded, because what I had learned at Syracuse in the 1930s had completely unprepared me for this,” he continues. “Then I spent the whole war working on thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, gas dynamics, and I realized how terrible my education was at Syracuse, just awful. And so part of my motive was, I can do a lot better than what happened to me at Syracuse in the ’30s.”
From 1946 on, Hill set out to accomplish that goal. He would eventually go on to become the dean of the College of Engineering at UMaine, but according to Hill, his transition to educator wasn’t the smoothest.
“I think when I started out … I was very bad,” Hill says of his teaching with a laugh. “I had the wrong expectations, and I’m sure the students early on were quite disappointed. But I think I caught on fairly early as to what it is I ought to do.”
Hill’s career hasn’t followed the typical planned progression most people try to maintain. Each choice and change he made, as he tells it, resulted from chance.
For example, in 1953 he responded to an advertisement in Scientific American calling for a thermodynamics specialist to help adapt the power plant used inside nuclear submarines to a mainstream power plant.
After his application was received and he underwent a series of background checks, Hill was hired. This job led to further opportunities in the nuclear industry. In 1986, shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, Maine Yankee, the only nuclear power plant in Maine at the time, was under the threat of closure.
Throughout the 1980s, the plant weathered three citizen-initiated referendums demanding its closure. The plant was finally closed in 1996 after a regulatory commission found numerous safety violations, including cracks in steam generator tubes.
Due to his past experience with nuclear energy, Hill became one of Maine Yankee’s most prominent defenders. He was part of a campaign by the company that owned Maine Yankee and became the face of nuclear energy during the hearings.
And it all started with an ad in a magazine.
A chance event forming a future career opportunity has become a pattern in Hill’s life. And while it may stem from chance, it doesn’t all come down to luck. His own insatiable curiosity and desire to do things better is a driving factor for Hill, from when he was a young man pursuing engineering to his extensive work today.
From calculations to observe energy usage to researching how to better use existing technology, Hill will poke his nose anywhere he can. Whenever he sees news broadcasts from another country, instead of listening, he’s busy observing buildings to see how their air conditioning is set up to learn more about it.
“I still have a very driven curiosity about how things work,” Hill says.
A great example of this is an anecdote he shares about a past experiment in Crosby Hall that Hill stumbled across. The experiment left behind a giant stack of machinery, which still sits there unused. When Hill went to the room to visit a graduate student who had her office inside it, he couldn’t help but wonder what it was.
“I said to her once, ‘What is this stuff?’ She never asked,” Hill says with a look of bafflement on his face. “She never asked what this great, monstrous pile of machinery was. I would have had to know right away. Even though it has nothing to do with me. ‘What is this thing?’”
Not much outweighs Hill’s curiosity, but one thing comes close: his desire to inform the public, refine opinions on energy reform and fix current energy systems, stemming from his love for improving the world around him.
“The whole world out there says one of two things: It’s a conspiracy, all we got to do is find the conspirators and fix it, and that’s that,” Hill says in reference to public opinion. “The other thing is that there’s a technology that’s going to fix it, and [what] we have to do is develop that technology, whether it’s wind or solar or whatever. Neither one of those things are true. Technology is not going to fix it. And the energy world is simply too big for conspirators to do anything. … This idea that we can blame it all on some kind of conspiracy is wrong. The conspiracy is one of stupidity.”
Hill does his own part in trying to change the world a little at a time. His own house features a variety of technological innovations — most of which he designed himself — including a “heat pump” water heater that uses one-fourth the energy of a traditional one and a large wood stove that is designed to be as efficient as possible.
The house he’s sitting in was built in the ’70s and features a special floor designed to absorb heat, solar panels that heat water that then heats the house and a massive array of special windows designed to let as much heat in as possible. The house is unoccupied, but Hill will give a tour upon request.
In addition to all of his work in energy, he rents a low-cost room to two Ph.D. candidates from China — a married couple — and their child, along with the man’s mother.
He began housing various people from China decades ago, when a business professor at UMaine came to the school from China. The man was, at that time, more than likely the only non-white face on the whole campus, Hill remembers. Needing a place to stay, Hill and his wife opened their home to the man. From then on, Hill has hosted dozens of students from the country.
For Hill, everything stems from the constant drive to have interest and variety in his life, as well as his drive to help others. Over the years he has undertaken more projects than he can remember. He has served as an expert witness in numerous court cases due to his extensive knowledge of thermodynamics, helping the state fire marshal solve a number of cases where the cause of a fire was contested.
The large heating pad on which his tomato plants now sit was, at one time, the cause of a fire that ended in litigation. A greenhouse worker had decided to use it but kept the thermostat too far away from where the heating device was. The result was a fire that cost the man his greenhouse. Hill can’t remember who won, but in the end he received the heating pad. So far, Hill has had no trouble using it.
Today he writes a column in the weekly Ellsworth American, is on the radio every weekend, tinkers with countless objects and ideas, and will help and converse with anyone interested in what he does. For him, it is just a part of the legacy of a life he feels has been lived to the fullest.
“I always tell people, I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do in life — and three things I didn’t want to do but did anyway,” Hill says with a laugh.