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Obituary: Wade L. Fite / Founder of successful high-tech firm while teaching physics at Pitt

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

-- Byron Spice

Today's university researchers are often expected both to extend human knowledge and to bolster the economy by turning their knowledge into products. These professors need look no further than Wade L. Fite for a role model.

Dr. Fite was a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh who, in 1964, founded Extranuclear Laboratories, a scientific-instrument company now known as ABB Extrel. He thus became one of Pittsburgh's first high-tech entrepreneurs.

Dr. Fite, 76, died Friday of kidney failure at his Fox Chapel home.

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Winfield, Kansas, he served in the southwest Pacific as an Army staff sergeant during World War II. After the war, he resumed his education at the University of Kansas, where he met and married Ruby Rose Kaufmann, and earned a degree in physics and mathematics. He earned his doctorate in physics at Harvard University in 1951.

He worked on early color television tubes at the Philco Corp. in Philadelphia while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1954, he went to London to study for a year on a National Science Foundation fellowship.. He returned briefly to Penn, but in 1957 joined the General Dynamics' General Atomic division, then being organized in San Diego.

General Atomic was assembled almost like a university in hopes of attracting bright young talent, said Richard T. Brackmann, who read about it while stationed with the Navy in San Diego. Brackmann, an electrical engineer who now lives in Collins, Mo., made himself a nuisance at the General Atomic office until Dr. Fite, who was one of the first hires, gave him a job. It was the beginning of a long association between them, both as research associates and as business partners.

Dr. Fite was an expert in atomic collision physics. That proved significant amid the hysteria following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, Brackmann said. Because his work was relevant to upper atmosphere physics and space science, Dr. Fite's expertise was much in demand.

When Pitt hired Dr. Fite and Brackmann in 1963, the university boasted it had assembled one of the world's leading teams in plasma physics and upper atmosphere research. Dr. Fite served as a consultant to a number of government agencies, including NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Bureau of Standards.

Dr. Fite also wanted to go into business. "Pitt was trying to prove they weren't just ivory towers," said Brackmann, so professors were encouraged to work for local industries. Dr. Fite and Brackmann went further, founding Extranuclear Labs to build chemical analysis tools called mass spectrometers and other scientific instruments.

Dr. Fite continued as president and chairman of the board of the company until his retirement in 1990. He retired from Pitt in 1988.

In addition to his scientific and business interests, Dr. Fite was an accomplished oboist, playing professionally for the San Diego Symphony, among other orchestras.

"It was weird," Brackmann recalled of their days at General Atomic. "You'd be working late and then hear that oboe music come floating down."

Dr. Fite is survived by three sons, Christopher, of Fox Chapel; John, of Aspinwall, and Andrew, of Stockholm, Sweden; a daughter, Rebecca, of Paris; a stepsister, Peggy Brown, of Wichita, Kan.; and a stepbrother, Jack Greer, of Washington, D.C.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. today in Weddell-Ajak Funeral Home in Aspinwall. The funeral will be at 1 p.m. in Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church. Burial will be private.

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