Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

MSU education helped Byker invent solutions that brighten our lives November 24, 2008 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 11/24/08

Photo of Harlan Byker by John Corriveau.

Harlan Byker grew up in a family that placed a high premium on education, but he wondered if he'd ever make it through college.

As someone who learns better by studying charts and graphs than reading books, he experienced some difficulties at Calvin College and during his early years at Montana State University, where he earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees. Byker is now a prolific inventor, who invented, among other things, the chemistry that allows rearview mirrors to automatically darken.

But the holder of 44 U.S. patents who now lives in West Olive, Mich., recalled having low expectations that he would ever achieve as much as he did. When he came to MSU, "I was just hoping that I would get through an undergraduate program."

Byker came to MSU after spending two years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He had always wanted to move west, and he heard that MSU had a great program in trout fishing, Byker joked. So in 1974, Byker and his wife Terri moved from southwest Michigan to southwest Montana, where he enrolled at MSU and Terri got a job in the registrar's office. Together they lived in campus housing and started raising children. Friends and fishing were good.

You can't imagine how much influence Montana State had on me. -Harlan Byker

The adjustment wasn't always easy, Terri said. The thought of living in their own apartment made the move more appealing, but she had never traveled west of Chicago. Byker's physical chemistry courses weren't easy either. He remembers sitting toward the front of Pat Callis' classroom with great curiosity and interest, but struggling with the material and unable to afford a calculator. Meanwhile, engineering majors sat in the back of the room with confidence, expensive calculators and strong backgrounds in math and aced their tests.

He was fortunate to take several classes from the professor, who encouraged him to stay in chemistry instead of switching his major to computer science, Byker said.

"But for him, I might've gone off and done something else, even though this is what I really wanted to do," he said.

Callis, still a chemistry professor, said he doesn't urge every student to stay in chemistry, but he saw something special in Byker. Even though he didn't always get the right answers, he was a creative, independent and extraordinary thinker.

"I seriously thought I saw something special," Callis said. "I remember thinking, 'Man, this guy is really, in some respects, getting bad answers, but his thought process is really exciting.'"

Harlan Byker studies samples of tinted glass reacting to sunlight. Byker invented the technology behind rearview mirrors that automatically darken. He hopes to apply the technology to office building windows. Photo by John Corriveau.
Harlan Byker studies samples of tinted glass reacting to sunlight. Byker invented the technology behind rearview mirrors that automatically darken. He hopes to apply the technology to office building windows. Photo by John Corriveau.

With Callis' encouragement, Byker graduated in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and immediately started working on his doctoral degree in physical chemistry. During the summer of 1979, while still 24 years old, he started working at Battelle Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. He returned to Montana that fall to defend his thesis and received his Ph.D. later that year.

While at Battelle Laboratories, Byker became the sole inventor of the chemistry behind the rearview mirror that automatically darkens when bright headlights approach from behind. More than 100 million of the mirrors with this technology are on the road today, Byker said. Gentex Corp. -- the company that paid for the research at Battelle, manufactures the mirrors and owns the patents for them -- is now worth more than $2 billion.

Byker, now 54, worked 12 1/2 years for Gentex and was a vice president in research and a board member. Today, he is part-owner of Pleotint LLC, a research development company in West Olive, Mich. Not one to peer too long in the rearview mirror, he said his next big goal is developing variably tinting windows for office buildings. The windows being developed by Byker's company will tint and untint automatically so occupants can enjoy sunlight without becoming overheated. Byker said the development process is as complex and unpredictable as having a baby and raising a child, but the potential is huge.

"If we are successful, we will have done something absolutely spectacular," he said.

Byker is so appreciative of MSU's role in his success so far, that he and Terri furnished the seminar room in MSU's new Chemistry and Biochemistry Building. The Harlan and Terri Byker Auditorium was dedicated in the spring.

"MSU isn't lucky. MSU deserves this," Byker said. "You can't imagine how much influence Montana State had on me."

Even before the auditorium dedication, the Bykers returned frequently to MSU. And 15 years ago, they set up an endowment to honor Callis, Dick Geer and Reed Howald. The latter two are retired from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The Geer-Howald-Callis Undergraduate Research Scholarship ranges from $1,500 to $3,100 a year and goes to chemistry majors who show curiosity and aptitude.

"Because I wasn't the straight-A student, I was more interested in somebody who had aptitude in the lab doing experiments," Byker said.

That description is true of her husband, Terri said. His success is also an outgrowth of his background. His parents believed strongly in education, and all six of their children graduated from college, Terri said. Most have advanced degrees. One brother is president of Calvin College. Another, MSU graduate Carl Byker, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Two sisters became school teachers. Another brother "never met a business opportunity he didn't like."

"I would say that our parents were very conscientious about raising their kids and they had very high expectations," said Gaylen Byker, president of Calvin College. "They very much valued education, educational achievement and making a significant contribution to society."

In the years since Harlan graduated from MSU, he has come up with unorthodox solutions by crossing the boundaries between disciplines, Gaylen said. He added that Harlan was always very bright, but after going to MSU, he "really, really flowered."