Kistler, the son of a shop keeper, was born in the small town of Cedarville in the far Northeastern corner of California. The family moved to the larger Santa Rosa when Kistler was 12, where he first became interested in chemistry. When he entered the College of the Pacific in 1917 however, his plan was to learn to play the cello, then pursue a degree in agriculture. Instead he ended up taking every science course available, and after three years he moved to Stanford University and obtained a B.A. in chemistry, followed by a chemical engineering degree. He never did learn to play the cello. After a brief spell working for the Standard Oil Company of California, he returned to academia, teaching chemistry at the College of the Pacific until 1931, when he transferred to the University of Illinois.
The exact circumstances of the creation of the first aerogels are not well recorded. A popular story is that they resulted from a competition between Kistler and one Charles Learned "to see if they could replace the liquid inside of a jelly jar without causing any shrinkage". Whether these experiments were performed at the College of the Pacific, still with limited facilities following the move in 1923 to the new Stockton campus, or at Stanford where Kistler began pursuing a doctorate in 1927, is a source of some confusion. Either way, in 1931 Kistler published a paper in Nature (vol. 127, p. 741) titled "Coherent Expanded Aerogels and Jellies".
He left his teaching post at the University of Illinois in 1935, and signed a contract with Monsanto Company in the early 1940s to start developing granular silica aerogel products under the trademark Santocel. Largely used as a flattening agent in paints and for similar uses, the line was discontinued by Monsanto in 1970, probably due to the high cost of manufacture and competition from newer products. Kistler had returned to teaching however, taking up a position as Dean of Engineering at the University of Utah in 1952. He died in 1975, shortly before the resurgence of interest in aerogels caused by the discovery of a less time consuming method of manufacture by researchers led by Stanislaus Teichner in France.