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PostHeaderIcon NORMAN C. FORD, JR. of SPRINGFIELD, MA, February 9, 1932 – August 25, 2013

Norman C. Ford Jr.

Amherst- Norman C. Ford Jr., professor of physics, inventor and entrepreneur, died August 25, 2013. He was 81. 

He passed away peacefully at Bay State Hospital in Springfield shortly after suffering a stroke. 

Born Feb. 9, 1932 in Springfield, MA, Norm graduated with a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at MIT he met his future wife, Barbara. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Syracuse University and a Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley.

During the Korean War Norm was drafted into the army and assigned to program a missile defense system to defend Washington D.C.  He joined IBM in 1956, where he did basic research on thin films, a technology that has wide relevance to the computer memory, electronics and optical industries.

Norm and his young family arrived in Amherst in 1965 to join the expanding physics department at UMass, where he taught for 15 years.  In 1971 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to conduct research at Oxford University.  In 1976 he was an exchange professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Shortly before leaving academia, Norm, along with fellow UMass physics professor Kenneth Langley, co-founded Langley Ford Instruments (LFI), among the earliest high-tech start-up companies in Amherst.  In the 1980s, LFI designed and built precision light-scattering instruments for use in industrial and academic research. Among other applications, these devices are used for blood analysis in hospitals and medical labs across the country.

Norm, whose dozens of patents and inventions were used in processes from cheese making to detecting eye diseases, went on to found two other technology companies, Precision Detectors and Phoenix Instruments.

In his retirement Norm was adviser to start-up companies in New England.  

During his 48 years in Amherst, Norm’s contributions to public life included working on a blueprint for economic development as part of the town’s 2010 master plan, serving as town meeting member and as clerk for voting precinct two. He enjoyed tutoring students in physics and math.

At the time of his death, Norm was treasurer of “Save Historic Cushman,” an organization opposing a luxury student dormitory complex proposed for rural North Amherst that Norm believed would destroy the character of the town he loved.

Throughout his life Norm applied his inventiveness to everyday tasks, and to some not-so-everyday tasks. After deciding to tap the maple trees on his property, he turned a discarded hot water heater into an automated syrup boiler.  When his eldest son proposed raising calves for beef, the family built a barn and fenced in fields.

Norm aspired to excellence and enjoyed mastering challenges, from solving sudoku to working on an early detection technique for Alzheimer’s disease.  He encouraged similar aspirations in his family and associates.  

In the mid-1960s, when Norm and Barbara commissioned renowned MIT architect Maurice Smith to design an avant-garde house, the contractor insisted it couldn’t be built.  Norm and Barbara prevailed and got their dream house, guided by Smith’s philosophy of building  “habitable three-dimensional fields” that showcase surrounding trees. To this day, the house remains an example of Norm’s vision, derring-do and “can do” spirit.

Norm’s love of nature inspired climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park as a graduate student, canoe trips and family hikes in the Austrian Alps.  After retirement, he vacationed with his family at Squam Lake in NH, where he would entertain all with his master storytelling and razor-sharp wit, and (for those above the drinking age) fine wines.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Barbara; son David, his spouse Carol and their children Andrew and Rachel, of Philadelphia; son Daniel and his partner Emily, of New York; and daughter Jocelyn of Beijing.

A memorial is planned for 3 p.m. on Sep. 21 at the UMass Campus Center Hotel 11 Fl.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the UMass Physics Dept. Obituary and memorial register at

Service details, Social networking, Memorial Guestbook and Slideshow are available here.

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