Surviving the Nazis to become top inventor

Surviving the Nazis to become top inventor

Weequahic High grad Walter Alina recalls his career in science

Alina at work in the laboratory at Seton Hall University, 1955.     
Alina at work in the laboratory at Seton Hall University, 1955.     

With citations on his wall from the New Jersey State Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie, not to mention a place in the Guinness World Records and the state’s Inventors Hall of Fame, Walter Alina looks back on his 84 years of life with pride and satisfaction.

His discoveries have made a major impact on things as large as America’s space program and as small as the transistor radio.

His accomplishments are even more noteworthy because Alina is a survivor of the Holocaust.

“I was born in Vienna, and we fled when the Nazis came in 1938. I lost most of my family after I came to New York in 1940. But I am an inventor today not because of where I was born or what I went through,” he said.

A few years after living in New York, he moved to Newark, where he attended Weequahic High School. He became bar mitzva at Temple B’nai Jeshurun before it moved from Newark to Short Hills.

“I went to school with many of your readers,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 24 phone interview from his home in Lakewood. “But too often I read their obituaries in your paper.”

Christie took note of Alina’s accomplishments in October, naming him New Jersey Inventor of the Year.

In a letter, the governor wrote Alina that he “can take pride in the knowledge that your research and discoveries will have a lasting impact that will benefit not only our state but the world.” It accompanied a citation from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame that said Alina had “made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of knowledge and human welfare.”

Alina; his supervisor, Charles Covino; and their company, General Magnaplate, were recognized by the State Legislature “for outstanding accomplishments in the field.”

When he entered Seton Hall University in South Orange after graduating from Weequahic, Alina had no idea where his keen interest in the sciences might lead.

“I took all the science courses that were available because I thought I might become a doctor or a dentist,” he said. “I had no idea, no premonition of which direction I wanted to go.”

Armed with a dual major in chemistry and business when he graduated in 1956, he spent three years doing graduate work in metallurgy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology while he worked as a chemist developing the process of electroplating — a way of using electricity to fuse one metal onto another surface, such as attaching gold or silver onto less costly metals in the making of jewelry.

In 1958 Alina went to work at RCA’s lab in Somerville, where he developed a process for creating transistors and semiconductors. It was there that he had a “Eureka!” moment.

The idea “just popped into my mind,” Alina said. It was a way of designing semiconductors that could replace the vacuum tubes in radio and television sets with small transistors. “It was the top thing I have ever done in my life,” he said.

But Alina had many more such moments to come. 

In 1978 he became vice president of the General Magnaplate Corporation in Linden. There, he devised a product called Hi-T Lube, a dry film lubricant coating that was of high value to the space program.

Because it could remain dry, Hi-T protected NASA astronauts’ space suits from the wet greases that melt and cause damage to materials in outer space. It has been used by astronauts on moon landings and space shuttles.

But in 1993 the Guinness Book of Records made a mistake when it stated that Teflon — not Hi-T Lube — was the most slippery substance on record. Alina’s wife, Lucille, urged him to contact the publisher, compelling Guinness to revise its record book to indicate that Hi-T — not Teflon — was the most efficient dry lubricant available. 

Like the transistor, another of Alina’s discoveries had a practical, down-to-earth use. In 1996 he designed a hard titanium nitride surface for golf clubs manufactured by a company owned by champion Jack Nicklaus. Titanium alloys are lighter than steel, which can make the club easier to swing. 

“But the funniest thing was I am not a golfer,” Alina said. “I played a lot more tennis than I ever played golf.”

For the past 16 years he and his wife have lived in a retirement community in Lakewood, where he continues to polish the piano-playing skills he learned at the age of 12. He entertains fellow residents by playing classical music and jazz, “but I don’t play rock ’n’ roll,” he said.

He started playing at and still performs for a senior citizens’ center in Lakewood. 

He and his wife have a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren.

Asked what he might advise younger people who wish to become inventors, Alina said, “Start early. A parent’s job is to make their kids interested in things and let the kids decide what they want to do. If they know they like something and are good at it they should stick with it and not let anyone talk them out of it.”

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