Eli M. Oboler Library

Library -->Libraries & Collections --> Special Collections -->Manuscript Collections -->Abe Lincoln Lillibridge -->Abe Lincoln Lillibridge-Biographical Sketch

Abe Lincoln Lillibridge (1891-1971)
Biographical Sketch

Abe Lincoln Lillibridge was born in Pocatello, Idaho, October 13, 1891, a son of John A. and Agnes S. Lillibridge. He, and the beloved city of his birth, were infants together and helped each other achieve robust manhood. He attended Pocatello schools and later became a professional engineer and an amateur historian in the Gate City.

Abe was a native of Pocatello Junction, the name by which the Gate City was known in the earliest days of Idaho railroading. The dwelling in which he was born, in the 800 block of what is now Pocatello's North Main street, was then on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

Abe related that his historical explorations revealed that his home was in the territory that had been under the jurisdiction of France as early as 1662, and was given to Spain one hundred years later. Napoleon got it back in a swap with Carlos of Spain, and President Thomas Jefferson bought it from France in 1803. It had also been under the control of the British and the Fort Hall Indians. Abe's homesite had been in the Washington, Oregon, and Idaho territories, and in the counties of Oneida, Bingham, and Bannock.

Abe's father, John, was a locomotive engineer who had moved to Eagle Rock in 1882 when the Oregon Short Line had extended its standard gauge rails to join the narrow gauge line which had entered Idaho from Utah in 1878. When the remaining narrow gauge line was changed to standard gauge rails, in 1887, the terminal facilities were moved from Eagle Rock (now Idaho Falls), to Pocatello. It was then that John and his wife Agnes joined other railroad people in the move to Pocatello.

Abe got his early education in a school located on the site of what is now Pocatello High School. In his youth, he worked as a press boy for the old Pocatello Tribune, and for the Oregon Short Line Railroad as a machinist apprentice, a draftsman, and a materials clerk. He also worked for Pocatello Gas and Power Company, setting up equipment and pipe fitting; for the White Knob Copper Company and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, as a machinist; for the Paul Roberts Machine Shop doing practically everything, including being shop foreman; and for Salt Lake Engineering Company, building new machines for mining.

World War I service occupied him from 1917 to 1919 as a member of the 346th Field Artillery, 91st Division. He got as far as the Meuse River front as the war ended.

He married Ethel Tolson, June 18, 1919, at Caldwell, Idaho. They had three sons, Eldon, Harold, and Robert.

After the war, Abe entered upon an outstanding career at Idaho Technical Institute (which later became Idaho State University). During his years on campus, Abe handled a great variety of work ranging from construction of a bottle shaker for the Pharmacy Department, to building a 50-ton punch press. Other projects he built include an electric generator, magnet pull test, a direct current testing device, oil test demonstrator, hoist, elevators, a two-ton road roller, several furnaces, cranes, engineering project models, a stadium clock, the gates and flagpole for the stadium, and rebuilt shops and laboratories on the campus. He also built two Tesla coils of about one million volts each for the Physics Department.

The highlight of his career was the construction, with others, of a five-ton Cyclotron for the Physics Department. When the ISC Cyclotron was built it was said to have been the smallest in the nation, producing up to two million volts. There were only about twenty machines in the United States, most producing about ten million volts.

The ISC machine was unique in that early construction was almost entirely from scrap materials with expenditures of only about $850 in cash. Helped by students, Lillibridge built the machine based on a design by the University of California at Berkeley, builders of the original Cyclotron. Total construction costs were in the neighborhood of $15,000, said to have been a "fantastically low" figure. Construction of the ISC atom smasher was begun by Lillibridge in 1952. The basic machine was completed in 1955, then the project was shelved until grant money became available in the early 1960s.

Among his sketches and drawings were a five-year campus expansion plan, original drawings for the Pharmacy Building, perspective drawings for campus catalogues, a replica of Old Fort Hall, and a view of Pocatello as records show it to have appeared in 1885, for the use of the museum.

He moved a 35-ton and a 65-ton locomotive from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to the campus for preservation as museum pieces.

In 1942 he was state shop supervisor for the National Youth Administration in Idaho. During the war period he also served as area supervisor for war training in Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, and as deputy state purchasing agent for war surplus.

He was a member of the American Society of Tool Engineers, the American Chemical Society, the Society of Engineering Education, the American Association of University Professors, the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers, the Idaho Historical Society, the Southeast Idaho Gem & Mineral Society, and the Pocatello post of the American Legion.

His hobbies included collecting historical artifacts and fossils of prehistoric animals, some of which were found in the city limits of Pocatello. He worked with museums, researching history, with railroads, and with electric power development. Owner of an excellent voice, he sang in several Pocatello church choirs.

The two most memorable events in Lillibridge's campus life were his role in assembling the University's first atom smasher (the Cyclotron described earlier) and his successful crusade to save the whistle of an old locomotive as an historical artifact. He was justifiably proud of both achievements.

The whistle episode occurred during World War II. It was decided, despite loud protests from a number of groups and individuals interested in preserving the city's history, to give an old locomotive which stood in front of the Pharmacy building to a drive for scrap metal for the war effort. Unable to rescue the engine, Lillibridge detached its whistle which he hid away until the storm had blown over. The whistle was later attached to the top of the school's heating plant to be blown whenever the Bengals scored a touchdown in the nearby stadium.

When Lillibridge was named associate professor emeritus in May, 1962, the State Board of Education cited his service to Idaho Technical Institute, the University of Idaho, Southern Branch, Idaho State College, and his work with the National Youth Administration.

The board noted that his "teaching has been supported by example, in which he demonstrated to his students the effectiveness of a keen mind guiding a skilled hand. His wide-ranging and active interests as well as mechanical skill have provided other faculty members with practical solutions to problems in research and instruction."

Abe Lincoln Lillibridge died July 22, 1971, after a long illness.

In the fall of 1971, following his death, the new Nuclear Science Engineering Building at ISU was named for him with the designation the Lillibridge Engineering Laboratory Building.

Compiled from newsclippings and edited by
Sam Hanson
News Reporter, Retired Oral History Researcher
Last Modified: 02/08/2008 sc