When David Hahn’s daughter was in high school, she had to complete an oral-history project on someone with an extraordinary life story.
For Hahn, one person immediately came to mind: Erich Farber.
“He has a story that you really won’t find from anyone else,” said Hahn, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida. “He was truly remarkable.”
Farber, who became a faculty member in the department in 1954 and eventually served as director of UF’s Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory, passed away on April 9. He was 95.
He was a world-renowned expert, cutting-edge researcher and 36-year professor in solar-energy technologies. In addition, he earned military decorations in World War II and served as a mountain-climbing instructor and Boy Scout leader.
“My dad had the ability to do just about anything,” said his son, Webb Farber, “and he did.”
Erich Farber was passionate about researching and developing solar-energy technologies at a time when most researchers didn’t see value in the field, Hahn said.
He led the charge to build the Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory and the first energy park at UF, which became a nationally recognized center for advanced solar technologies in the 1950s.
Hahn said the park contains what is now known as the solar archive house, which is considered a national landmark through the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The house, built by Farber, was originally used to test whether solar energy could generate enough consistent electricity to support the family of one of Farber’s own Ph.D. students.
Farber’s work earned him titles like “Sunshine Superman” and “Solar Energy Pioneer,” Hahn said.
When it came to the house and other projects, Farber had a gift for marrying technology with economics, Hahn said. Farber emphasized that his students had to “make something that makes economic sense.”
“He was a wonderful mixture of deep technical knowledge and a practical understanding of what it takes to be an engineer in the real world,” Hahn said. “You really don’t find that every day.”
Farber’s practical approach inspired more than just his students.
D. Yogi Goswami, a mechanical engineer at the University of South Florida, said he first worked with Farber as a graduate student at UF. When Farber retired from UF in 1990, Goswami was hired to take his place and continue the solar-energy research at the university.
“I felt honored to be offered that position because it was held by Dr. Farber,” Goswami said. “He was one of the original solar-energy researchers at a time when most scientists did not pay attention to solar energy.
“Even though the field was not considered to be important, he saw its importance.”
Goswami said that the biggest lesson he learned from Farber was to not just conduct research and write papers, but to also focus on developing practical technologies that help people.
“A lot of researchers will write papers, and nobody will read those papers again half of the time,” he said. “Dr. Farber was not one of those people, and that had a big influence on me.”
Even though Farber didn’t focus on writing papers, he was known around the office for reading every research paper and science journal he could find and keeping them in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling.
“We had a fear there would be an avalanche one day as he sat in his office,” said Barbara Graham, an assistant editor for Goswami at both UF and USF. “We’d always joke and say, ‘Dr. Farber, be on the lookout!’”
The friendly office banter continued even after Farber retired. He would visit the office to share memories and check his mail every Thursday, Graham said.
But Farber’s interests and research went beyond solar energy.
Webb Farber said his father worked with NASA on its moon missions in the 1960s and ’70s and on the space-shuttle program, experimenting with rocket fuel’s reaction to oxygen and developing an instrument that can read moisture on space-shuttle tiles, which protect the shuttle as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
Farber also assisted heart surgeons at UF Health Shands Hospital by developing non-invasive temperature sensors for open-heart surgeries.
“He was a brilliant man,” Webb Farber said. “I told him all the time that he was Superman because he could do anything. Of course, he would just laugh.”
Webb Farber said his father wanted to know a little bit about everything and pass along his knowledge to anyone he could. A few years ago, Erich Farber established a scholarship fund at both UF and nearby Santa Fe College for undergraduates interested in alternative-energy research.
“We still receive thank-you letters, and that’s a gift that keeps giving forever,” Webb Farber said. “My dad’s legacy lives on through the hundreds of people he’s influenced.”
Webb Farber said he remembers his father buying a blackboard, mounting it on a wardrobe inside their home, and having “science class” for him and his brother Hans every night after dinner.
“I’ve loved science ever since,” said Webb Farber, an environmental activist.
In retirement, Erich Farber enjoyed going to yard sales and buying broken objects.
“He’d take it home, take it apart and repair it,” Webb Farber said. “Then he’d move onto the next thing. If it wasn’t broken, he wasn’t interested.”
Webb Farber said he’s comforted thinking about the one phrase his father repeated more than any other.
“He always said he wanted to make the world a better place for being here,” he said. “And he definitely did.”