A native of Lipa, Batangas, Zara finished primary schooling at Lipa Elementary School, where he graduated as valedictorian in 1918. In 1922, he again graduated valedictorian in Batangas High School, an accolade which warranted him a grant to study abroad. However the scholarship was given to another student upon the intervention of a public official. With full support from his parents he then enrolled at the University of the Philippines. In the middle of his first semester, he finally got the scholarship when his rival got sick and died abroad. Dr. Zara then enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and graduated with a degree of BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1926. After that he obtained a Master of Science in Engineering (Aeronautical Engineering) at the University of Michigan, USA, graduating summa cum laude. Zara then sailed to France to take up advanced studies in physics at the Sorbonne University in Paris. In 1930 he again graduated summa cum laude with a degree of Doctor of Science in Physics, with "Tres Honorable," the highest honor conferred to graduate students. Zara was the first Filipino given that honor. Madam Marie Curie was given the same accolade for her discovery of radium.
Upon his return to the Philippines, Dr. Zara was appointed technical assistant on aviation matters in the office of the Secretary of Department of Public Works and Communications (DPWC). Subsequently, he became chief of the aeronautical division of the DPWC. In 1936, he was assistant director and chief aeronautical engineer in the Bureau of Aeronautics of the Department of National Defense. For 21 years, he was director of aeronautical board, a position he held and confirmed by the Congress of the Philippines up to 1952. Considered expert in the Field, he was chosen to be the technical editor of Aviation Monthly and at various times, he worked as vice chairman and acting chairman of the National Science Development Board, where a number of Science projects were impetus. Dr. Zara was probably the most productive of Filipino inventors, with 30 devices and equipment patented to his name. Among these were the earth induction compass, used by pilots for direction; the vapor chamber, used to visualize radioactive elements; the wooden microscope; solar energy devices for areas not reached by power lines; a functional robot; the photo-phone, which allowed audiovisual phone conversations; a functional alcohol-fueled plane; wooden aircraft propellers; and a corresponding propeller cutting machine. He also has written numerous papers and textbooks in science and physics, with some even written in French. While busy in governmensty positions, Zara also was an educator. He was an instructor of aeronautics at the Valeriano Aviation School, at the American Far Eastern School of Aviation (1933) and at the Far Eastern University (1937–41). At FEATI University, he was professor of aeronautics (1946), then head of the Aeronautical Engineering Department (1962) and later dean of Engineering and Technology and director of research. He was elected executive vice-president of the university from 1946 to 1962 and acting president in 1956. He retired from government service in 1946 and joined the Far Eastern Air Transport Incorporated (FEATI) and eventually became a member of its board of trustees. He was also a Member of the board of directors of the National Shipyards and Steel Corporation and of the Civil Aeronautics Board.
The Filipino scientist Gregorio Y. Zara (D.Sc. Physics) invented, made improvements to, or discovered the following:The Zara Effect – He discovered the physical law of electrical kinetic resistance called the Zara effect (around 1930)
He improved methods of producing solar energy including creating new designs for a solar water heater (SolarSorber);
A sun stove, and a solar battery (1960s);
Invented a propeller-cutting machine (1952);
He designed a microscope with a collapsible stage;
helped design the robot Marex X-10;
Invented the two-way television telephone or videophone (1955) patented as a "photo phone signal separator network";
Invented an airplane engine that ran on plain alcohol as fuel (1952);
He traveled extensively through the United States, Asia, and Europe to conduct investigative surveys. His research works and technical papers were published not only in the Philippines but in Europe as well. His books, L’etude du compass, Magnitique e induction, and his article, “L’etude seismologique de 1’0 de secondaire,” were published in Paris, France in 1930. His locally published research works were “Development of Commercial Aviation in the Philippines,” “Prediction of Airplane Performance at a Glance,” “Commercial Aviation in the Philippines”, “The Technical Aspect of the Arais & Calvo Manila-Madrid Flight,” “Photo elastic Stress Determination,” “The Propeller-Cutting Machine,” and “Industrial Alcohol as Aircraft Fuel.” He has a total of 30 devices and equipment patented to his name. Namely: earth induction compass, used by pilots for direction; the vapor chamber, used to visualize radioactive elements; the wooden microscope; solar energy devices for areas not reached by power lines; a functional robot; the photo-phone, which allowed audiovisual phone conversations; a functional alcohol-fueled plane; wooden aircraft propellers; and a corresponding propeller cutting machine. Dr. Zara became internationally known for his scientific inventions. His magnetic and induction compass was awarded the “Brevet d’ invention” by the Ministre de Industrie of the Kingdom of Belgium. His invention of the semi-automatic propeller making machine and the first aircraft engine using industrial alcohol as fuel drew admiration from aviation circles throughout the world. The other products of his inventive genius included the “solar-sorber,” which makes use of solar power for ordinary household needs, and the two-way “television-telephone,” a device that permits a caller to see the picture of the party being called, and vice versa.
Zara was much honored by his countrymen. He was presented diplomas of merit by the Business Writers Association of the Philippines (1951), the Philippine International Fair (1952) and by the Society of Filipino Inventors (1955). He received meritorious citations as the “Propeller Maker of the Year” (1952) and the “Aeronautical Engineer of the Year” (1953) by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. A Presidential Diploma of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal in 1959 for his pioneering works and achievements in solar energy, aeronautics and television; Presidential Gold Medal and Diploma of Honor for Science and Research in 1966; and Cultural Heritage award for Science Education and Aero Engineering, 1966. In 1978 he was conferred the Order of National Scientist by former President Ferdinand Marcos.
On October 15, 1978, at the age of 76, Dr. Zara died of heart failure. He was survived by his wife, the former Miss Philippines and Queen of the 1933 Philippine Carnival, Engracia Laconico, and four children: Antonio, Pacita, Josefina, and Lourdes. The Philippine government accorded him a state funeral at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.