Helmut Krebs, master machinist, 1935–2022

June 2, 2022
By Maureen McMahon

Machinist Helmut Krebs designed and built precision instrumentation at the University of Chicago for fifty years. Image: Krebs Family

For five decades UChicago machinist crafted scientific instrumentation, trained student researchers

Helmut Krebs, a machinist and longtime manager of the University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division Central Machine Shop and Student Machine Shop, died in Chicago on April 17. He was 87.

During a career that spanned fifty years at the University of Chicago, Krebs applied his unmatched skills as an instrument machinist to a vast array of research instrumentation for the physical and medical sciences. He amassed a legacy of excellence and trained a generation of students to machine parts and think through projects. 

Machinist Helmut Krebs demonstrates an electron microscope
Machinist Helmut Krebs demonstrates an electron microscope at the Central Shop. UChicago Library, Special Collections

When Krebs joined UChicago in 1964, over thirty journeyman machinists were on staff in the Central Machine Shop. The vast, fully equipped workshop for machining, design, and fabrication of precision scientific instruments and apparatus took up what is now the footprint of the modern Eckhardt Research Center. Together, these talented machinists brought to life the concepts scientists put forth to further their fields. 

The shop served as the campus engine for innovation and was known internationally as an enviable shop. Chemist and Prof. Emeritus Donald Levy recalled, “That was one of the attractions of the University: If you were an experimentalist and wanted to build something, Chicago was the place.” 

In an era before computers, faculty, postdocs, and students would wind their way down to the shop, blueprints in hand, and approach the manager with an assignment. Each design assembled hundreds of these hand drawn blueprints for components that had to fit together to function perfectly. 

Prof. Steven Sibener, chemist and former director of James Franck Institute, said that as an experimentalist, you got to know who was exceptionally talented in the shop. “I would present my ideas to the manager and the manager would know I wanted Helmut,” he said.

The two worked together to build the key components for many successful complex instruments over the decades. “He was a master designer who had a sense of what he was constructing beyond a master machinist,” said Sibener. “Helmut could look at a blueprint and easily see what you were trying to do—then suggest a change leading to remarkable improvements.”

Krebs stood out for his devotion to detail and acuity with troubleshooting designs. He could easily read a blueprint across scientific research requirements and improve it or find a way out of a problem. He was granted several patents, including some for endoscopes with a video feed.

Prof. Levy, a researcher in molecular beam spectroscopy, sought out Krebs’ expertise for “just about everything I built over the last thirty years of my career.” He described it as a joyful, productive, and important partnership.

“A good machinist could make what was on the paper, but a great machinist wants to make sure the experiment works,” he said. “Whatever he touched was always what he wanted. He was the guy you went to before you designed your experiment to get his ideas and to hear if what you were thinking would work.” 

Central Machine Shop at UChicago
The Central Machine Shop, University of Chicago. Mike Benedik, Chicago Maroon

Among the most notable instruments Krebs produced includes a crossed beam molecular scattering apparatus for former UChicago chemistry professor Yuan T. Lee in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Krebs collaborated on the instrumentation with another standout UChicago machinist, Paul Dolmer. Lee’s work on this apparatus and other subsequent ones earned him the Nobel prize in 1986, with Dudley Herschbach and John Polanyi, for advancing chemical kinetics techniques to investigate and manipulate the behavior of chemical reactions with their technology.

In 1990, Krebs was a part of UChicago’s non-imaging solar optics team, led by Prof. Roland Winston, that designed and placed the world’s most powerful solar furnace on the roof of the physics building. The furnace produced energy from the sun that is 84,000 times greater than the sun’s normal energy level on Earth and was used successfully to power lasers and to develop new high-strength materials.

John Phillips led facilities for the Department of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute for thirty years. He remembers Krebs as wonderful to talk with and the ultimate source for questions on how to build something: “He knew so much more than anyone who supervised him, bossing him around was not in the cards.” For the last five of his years in the Central Machine Shop, Krebs served as manager.

When it came to challenges posed by complex equipment, Krebs enjoyed solving them, and was trusted with difficult and expensive unique materials.

A cryostat designed for an experiment by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics was chosen to be on display at the Adler Planetarium and the Smithsonian for a year. Astrophysicist and Prof. Emeritus Stephan Meyer and exhibit developer Randy Landsberg brought it to Krebs in the shop: “We sawed it in half down the middle, so that one half went to Adler and the other to the Space Museum in Washington, D.C.,” said Meyer. 

“It was a very hard project because there were many materials—steel, aluminum, clay—and sawing things in half: they fall apart. Helmut took the challenge very seriously. He was so careful and took his time to make the displays all intact. I will always be quite impressed with that,” he said.

Across disciplines, colleagues stated the spirit Krebs brought to his work was welcoming and wonderful in an environment where a clash of expertise and hierarchy was common.

Helmut Krebs, 1962. Image: Krebs Family

He treated everyone equally and was extremely accessible. This equanimity was part of why Sibener invited him to stay on, at age 71, to run the Student Machine Shop—a space Krebs took pride in, insisting that he be allowed to paint the instruments himself to make it perfect for the grand opening.

Before he asked him Sibener wondered, Do you have the Babe Ruth of machinists teach others to swing a bat? “Well, Helmut turned out to be a spectacular teacher in the shop. He loved the students and was very patient with them.”

Krebs stayed on as manager until his retirement in 2014. In his later years he kept in touch with friends at the University and was an investor.

Helmut Krebs was born in 1935 in the then-ethnically German village of Lindenwerder in the then-conflict-torn border region of Kolmar, which today is in Poland and is known as Lipa Góra. His family wrote that, at age 10, under Stalinist influence, Krebs was expelled with millions of others by the advancing Russian Army and force-marched as a refugee into East Berlin. He became a lathe trainee and student in a high school in Hötensleben in East Germany. At age 17, he again fled due to Communism, risking his life to defect to West Germany, to be followed years later by his parents and siblings. As a young adult, he worked as a journeyman machinist in the city of Hilden in West Germany.

In 1956, with just fifty dollars, he immigrated to Chicago. He became a citizen of the United States in 1963 and joined the University of Chicago in March of 1964. He was deeply proud of his affiliation with the University of Chicago and boasted to colleagues that his son was attending the best institutions in the world.

That son, Dr. Werner Krebs, UHigh’92, SB,SM’96, is now a data scientist. 

"My father said that science and scientific progress were some of the things he most believed in,” said Werner. “He also loved being a machinist and building scientific prototypes. His career at the University of Chicago enabled him to advance human knowledge while working as a machinist.”

Helmut Krebs is predeceased by seven siblings and parents, Friedrich and Erna Ida Krebs. He is survived by his former wife, Irmgard Krebs, and son, Werner G. Krebs, PhD, and siblings Doris Fischer, Dietlinde Hiller, and Karl-Heinz Krebs of Germany, plus many nieces and nephews in Europe.

A funeral service and a University memorial service were held in April.