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Louis Sutro
Thursday, January 6, 2005

Louis L. Sutro of Needham died Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2004, at the Mary Ann Morse Nursing Home in Natick. He was 89.


Born in Kingston, N.Y., he was a son of the late Frederick C. and Elizabeth (Winne) Sutro. He grew up in Basking Ridge, N.J., and Elizabeth, N.J., and graduated from the Pingry School in Elizabeth. He received a bachelor of science degree in engineering studies from Harvard University in 1938. A longtime Needham resident, Mr. Sutro had been a resident of Whitney Place Assisted Living in Natick since April.


Intending to enter the field of city planning, he worked briefly for a city commission in Elizabeth, N.J. He dreamed of creating an electronic "Visualizer" that would enable planners to share concepts more easily. He pursued the study of optics at Dartmouth College and became a specialist in creating three-dimensional pictures, both drawings and photographs.


During World War II, Mr. Sutro joined a government project at Sylvania Corp. in Ipswich, working on the design of the proximity fuse. It was used against enemy rockets fired at London and at United States ships in the Pacific.


After the war, Mr. Sutro wrote instruction manuals at General Electric in Lynn and taught electrical engineering to returning veterans at Tufts College in Medford from 1948 through 1951, while pursuing further studies at Harvard and MIT.


Later he was associated with Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Minneapolis-Honeywell in Newton and the Instrumentation Laboratory at MIT, which became the Draper Laboratory of MIT. Among the several research projects there he was group leader of a team that was designing an early version of an unmanned space rover to explore the planet Mars for NASA. It was Mr. Sutro's plan to place a three-dimensional camera on the front of the robot, an idea that received fruition in the Mars landings of 2003. He also worked on the design of an arm of the Space Shuttle.


Mr. Sutro lectured widely about artificial intelligence and robots in the United States and in Spain, England and Canada, and published a number of scientific papers. In 1961, following the launch of Sputnik by the Russians, Mr. Sutro was appointed by the Needham Board of Selectmen to become chairman of a Survival-in-Disaster Study Committee for the town.


Retiring from Draper Laboratory in 1981, Mr. Sutro continued to attend professional meetings in Cambridge and Boston. He also spent much time on the nuclear freeze movement and on various projects at First Parish in Needham, where he had served on the Property Committee for many years, including a long period as chairman, and on the Social Action Committee.


He leaves his wife, Ruth B. Wilson Sutro, whom he married in 1946; three children, Joy S. Truman and her husband, Dale, of Storrs, Conn., Sarah Sutro and her husband, Michael Bedford, of Winchester and Roger W. Sutro and his wife, Marcia House, of West Kingston, R.I.; his brother, Frederick C. Sutro Jr. of Sewickley, Pa.; three grandsons, Daniel Truman of Astoria, N.Y., James Truman of Baltimore, and Will Bedford-Sutro of Winchester; and several nieces and nephews.


He was the brother of the late Ogden W. Sutro.


A memorial service will be held Saturday, Jan. 29, at 2 p.m., at First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, 23 Dedham Ave.


In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Memorial Fund of First Parish, U.U., 23 Dedham Ave., Needham, MA 02492; or to the Alzheimer's Association, 36 Cambridge Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140.