March 27, 2023    Matt Wein

Alan Guisewite, an operations assistant in the Robotics Institute for 40 years, died earlier this month. He was 74.Alan Guisewite, an operations assistant in the Robotics Institute for 40 years, died earlier this month. He was 74.

  His official title was operations assistant. But between his technical capabilities, institutional memory and seemingly comprehensive knowledge of building materials, Alan Guisewite was a veritable Swiss Army knife in the Robotics Institute for 40 years.

Guisewite, who spent his entire 50-year career at Carnegie Mellon University, died on Sunday, March 12. He was 74.

“You couldn’t write a job description for what Alan did,” said Mel Siegel, an emeritus professor in RI who worked with Guisewite for more than 20 years. “He was a factotum for the Robotics Institute. You couldn’t just go out looking to find someone like him. The breadth of his knowledge was incredible.”

Born in Utica, New York, in 1948, Guisewite grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs of Verona and Penn Hills. He graduated from Penn Hills High School in 1966, and earned an associate’s degree in electrical engineering from the Community College of Allegheny County’s Boyce Campus in 1972.In 1973, he started working as an electronics technician in CMU’s Biomedical Engineering Program, a precursor to today’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. There, he helped design and fabricate everything from a device that measured the physical movement of a beating heart to early LED-based pulse oximeters.

In 1983, when Siegel needed help in his growing Intelligent Sensor, Measurement and Control Lab, he hired Guisewite away from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“We were doing process improvement. Someone would come to us and say, ‘Hey, can you make this work better for us?'” Guisewite said in an interview earlier this year. “We weren’t just working on a project and spinning it off. We were jumping from project to project, and that made it a lot of fun.”

During his years in Siegel’s lab, Guisewite helped build everything from an LED-based navigation system and a computerized nanobrewery to mobile robots for conducting aircraft safety inspections and machines capable of measuring the thickness of individual strands of fiberglass.

“Twice a week, he got at least two post office bags full of catalogs and magazines — catalogs from optics companies, electronic component companies, scientific instrument manufacturers,” Siegel said. “He read all of it. He kept all sorts of materials, different kinds of Styrofoam, polyethylene bottles in every size you could imagine. He just had it all and he knew where everything was.”

As Siegel wound down his research in the early 2000s, Guisewite’s talent for building things remained in high demand around the Robotics Institute. He helped build Ralph Hollis’ Microdynamic Systems Lab, worked for Cameron Riviere’s Medical Instrumentation Lab and assisted Lee Weiss on multiple projects.

He also worked on numerous projects with Gregg Podnar, including a low-cost, first-response disposable robot; early versions of the ChargeCar; and a fleet of Robot Sensor Boats — autonomous kayaks they piloted in Oakland’s Panther Hollow Lake.

But it was the breadth of his knowledge that most impressed his colleagues.

“Alan was such a unique character. Very intelligent, but simple and unassuming,” said Jean Harpley, an academic program manager in RI and a friend of Guisewite. “He didn’t flaunt his knowledge, but if you were interested, he’d engage and share mind-numbing facts that made you wonder, ‘Who knows this stuff?’ Alan did, and he took great joy in sharing it.”

“In about 1992, I broke my wrist playing soccer,” Siegel said. “I described what had happened to Alan and he said, ‘Oh yes, a Colles fracture!’ You don’t encounter that much. How did he know that?”

A longtime rockhound and mineral collector, Guisewite amassed a collection of roughly 10,000 mineral specimens from around the world over the course of his life, all of which he arranged to donate to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. His collection constitutes the largest single donation of its kind in the museum’s history.

In honor of Guisewite and his 50 years of service to the university, CMU created the Alan Guisewite Fellowship, which will financially assist graduate students in the Robotics Institute. Guisewite hopes it will keep students interested and involved.

“There’s a lot going on here,” he said. “There’s a lot you can do, whether it’s on your own or with another student or professor or staff. You can get involved.”

For More InformationAaron Aupperlee | 412-268-9068 |