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ICO History


By J.N. Howard

Foreword : International Unions in Science and Technology

Prior to about 1800 science was pursued by only a small handfull of scholars, and had very little effect on the lives of ordinary people. For most people life was simple farming to produce food, and clothing was made at home by spinning wool or flax. The only machinery were water wheels or wind mills used to grind wheat, and in the mid-1700s water mills were adapted to weave cloth. Then in 1781 James Watt perfected a steam engine, and the industrial revolution had begun. Science became important.

In the 1800s there was a dramatic increase in the application of physics and chemistry to technology. This was very international in character: in electrical studies one can mention Ampere, Coulomb and Biot in France; Faraday, Kelvin and Maxwell in England; Gauss, Ohm, Helmholtz and Siemens in Germany; and Henry, Edison and Bell in America. The electrical units were arbitrary, and poorly defined, and in 1832 Gauss, who was studying terrestrial magnetism, proposed an absolute definition of the magnetic field unit in terms of length, mass, and time. In 1834 Gauss and his colleague Weber organized the Magnetische Verein, which united a world-wide network of observatories for international scientific cooperation in the measurement of terrestrial magnetism. This Verein was the first scientific union, and it ultimately became the IUGG, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, which is today the world's largest scientific union. By the late 1800s other unions were organized in other disciplines; some related to optics are the IAU (the International Astronomical Union), the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and IUPAC (in chemistry).

After the First World War the Major Powers attempted to organize a League of Nations, headquartered in Geneva, to help ensure permanent peace. One of the activities of the League was to formalize and coordinate the international scientific unions, and most of the unions moved their secretariats to Geneva or Paris. At present there are about 25 of these unions, ranging from IUGG, the largest, with 78 member countries; to middle-sized unions such as IAU, IUPAP (Pure and Applied Physics), IUPAC, or URSI (radio sciences), to the smallest, the International Union for the History of Science. (It is interesting to note that for many years the president of this last Union was Prof. Vasco Ronchi of Italy, himself a well-known optical scientist.)

These various international scientific unions are primarily coordinating organizations, and do not themselves function as technical societies. They do not have individual, dues-paying members; rather they receive their funding by assessment of the member countries belonging to the union. In general they do not publish journals or hold technical symposia; rather they convene an Assembly or Congress every three or four years, ordinarily rotating among their major member countries (although the host country may hold a specialized technical meeting adjacent to the official Union Assembly).

The unions are not all identically organized, but in general they form sub-committees or Commissions to consider specific technical matters; such as definitions or nomenclature. For example, there is a Spectroscopy Commission, which is a joint commission of IUPAP and IUPAC, which catalogs atomic and molecular energy states. The International Commission for Optics is an affiliated commission of IUPAP. The largest union, IUGG, is organized also to include as members seven major International Associations; (in Geodesy, Geomagnetism and Aeronomy, Hydrology, Seismology, Vulcanology, Oceanology, and Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics). Each of these International Associations in turn represents the national technical societies in each discipline. IAMAP, for example, is the international coordinating organization for the American Meteorological Society, the Japanese Meteorological Society, and all of the other meteorological societies of the IUGG member countries. These national technical societies also then contribute to the financial support of the International Association.

The budgets of the individual unions are quire small compared to the operations of today's larger technical societies, say in electronics, or computing, or space science. In the mid-1990s, for example, the total income of IUPAP was about $200 000, and the total income of a subsidiary affiliated Commission such as ICO was only of the order of $25 000. This budget was almost entirely spent by the secretariat in announcing agendas, disseminating committee reports, or in supporting necessary travel by union officials.

This entire assortment of Commissions, Associations, and Unions in turn is banded together into ICSU, the International Council of Scientific Unions, with headquarters in Paris. ICSU was founded in 1931 and contains 96 members, consisting of 25 Scientific Unions and 71 national research councils or academies. ICSU collaborates with the United Nations and its agencies, (principally UNESCO) , although ICSU is independent of the UN.

The birth of ICO

Reunions d'Opticiens, Paris, 14-19 October 1946

In 1946 Europe was at last beginning to recover from the ordeal of World War II. The oldest and largest optics group in Europe was the Institut d'Optique in Paris, which had been founded in 1921 by the distinguished optical physicist Charles Fabry (1867-1945), and the director of the Institut d'Optique, Prof. Pierre Fleury, who had succeeded Fabry in 1945, was eager to resume an active role in European optics. He wrote to his optics colleagues and former students throughout Europe and invited them to participate in a Reunions d'Opticiens in Paris 14-19 October 1946. Scientists from 16 different countries participated in this first post-war European optics conference. The invited papers were by Frank Twyman (of Hilger and Watts) on the production of aspherical surfaces; Louis de Broglie on image formation, Jean Cabannes on the development of optics in France, and Pierre Fleury reviewed the history of the Institut d'Optique and rerearch pursued since 1940. Then followed several days of contributed papers from most of the European optics groups. Many of the participants urged Fleury to seek some mechanism for continued cooperation in the optics community.

Prof. Fleury was already a French representative to IUPAP (the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics), with headquarters in Paris, and he was aware that the statutes of IUPAP provided for the creation of commissions in specific areas of physics; why not a commission for optics? He also determined that UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, with headquarters in Paris) would also be able to provide -through IUPAP- some funds for travel to a Preparatory Meeting in Prague to discuss the formation of an International Commission for Optics.

The ICO Preparatory Meeting, Prague, 2-7 June 1947

In January 1947 the General Assembly of IUPAP approved the appointment of a Preparatory Committee, with Prof P. Fleury as Secretary, to consider forming an International Commission for Optics. The preparatory committee met in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 2-7 June 1947, with Prof Josef Hrdlicka as host. Fifteen delegates attended, representing eight countries, (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden). Replies were received from five other countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and the USA) that their representatives would be unable to attend, and Argentina and the USSR did not respond.

The attendees agreed that an International Commission for Optics should be formed as a self-governing affiliated commission of IUPAP. Each member country would form a national committee for ICO, which would select that country's representative to the ICO Bureau meetings. A set of provisional Statutes was adopted (patterned after the Statutes of IUPAP), and a provisional bureau was elected, (subject to approval by IUPAP and re-confirmation by the national committees at the first official meeting.) Thomas Smith of London was elected president; Pierre Fleury of Paris, secretary; Albert Arnulf of Paris, treasurer; and Josef Hrdlicka of Prague a vice-president, with two other vice-presidents to be selected at the first official meeting. The delegates decided to hold their first plenary session of ICO in conjunction with the next General Assembly of IUPAP in July 1948 in Amsterdam. (The Dutch delegate, Prof van Heel, invited the ICO to meet at his laboratory in Delft.)

The organizers also formulated the objectives of ICO: the study of optical theory, the theoretical study and construction of optical instruments, and the physiological optics of the eye. The organizers were grateful to both UNESCO and IUPAP for travel, secretarial and publication support during the initial organizational stage, but in order to ensure smooth functioning of ICO in 1948 and beyond it was decided to assess each member country for an annual contribution

based on the same population scale used by IUPAP: countries with less than 5 million inhabitants, 1 unit; 5 to 10 million, 2 units; 10 to 15 million, 3 units; 15 to 20 million, 5 units; and greater than 20 million, 8 units. For 1948 the assessment would be 20 US dollars per unit. (A quick calculation based on the expected membership indicated a total of about 50 units, or anticipated annual revenue of around $1000.)

As tasks to be accomplished in the near term by ICO, each national committee was asked to establish if possible a list of the names and addresses of its optics researchers and also a list of the manufacurers of optical instruments. Each country was also asked to supply a list of their optics publications for the war years 1939-1945.

As a further challenge to the new organization the delegates compiled a list of about 20 technical problem areas in optics. These subjects were assigned to various ICO national committees, with a request that each committee report on its problem at the 1948 meeting in the Netherlands. Most of the problem areas represented the special interests of the delegates present at the preparatory session, and this would provide a quick mechanism to ensure some technical content at the first formal meeting of ICO. Italy (G. Toraldo di Francia) would survey diffraction theory; Great Britain (T. Smith) would survey aberration studies (without diffraction); and France (A. Maréchal) and the Netherlands would report on the combined effect of aberrations and diffraction. Sweden (E. Ingelstam) would survey gratings; Great Britain, photographic objectives; and other groups were assigned other tasks. Finally, there would be reports on sign conventions, notation, tolerances and the specification of optical drawings.

In drawing up these assigned tasks the preparatory commission was following the usual format of a commission of a scientific union: stating specific problems to be reported on by the commission. In Prague the founding group had recognized the need for improved international cooperation in optics, had sketched a charter for ICO, and had planned a comprehensive program for the ICO initial meeting in 1948.

The First Congress, ICO 1, 12-17 July 1948, Delft, Netherlands

The first official meeting of ICO took place 12-17 July 1948 at the Physics Laboratory of the Technische Hogeschool, Delft, Netherlands. Forty-four delegates from eleven countries attended the meetings. At the first session Prof Fleury announced that IUPAP had cordially accepted the affiliation of ICO and had approved the Statutes provisionally adopted at Prague. The appointment of officers elected in 1947 was confirmed, and two additional vice-presidents were elected: S.S. Ballard (USA) and A.C.S. van Heel (Netherlands). Thus the eleven countries represented at Delft became the founding member countries of the ICO; Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

In addition to the sessions devoted to reports on the problem areas that had been assigned at Prague, the participants heard four invited lectures: by M. Françon (France); T. Smith (Great Britain); D.B. Judd (USA); and A.C.S. van Heel (Netherlands). On the first day of the meeting Prof van Heel hosted a reception at his home, and on the last evening the group held a formal dinner. During the week there were several local visits to research laboratories: de Oude Delft; the Kammerlingh-Onnes Laboratory in Leiden; the Philips Research Labs at Eindhoven; van Cittert's collection of historical optical instruments at Utrecht; and the optics and electron optics laboratories of the Technische Hogeschool, Delft. This sort of mixing of technical reports and social activities is important in building a sense of community among the attendees.

The principal work at the meeting was the presentation of detailed reports on the topics that had been assigned at Prague. These reports occupied most of the six technical sessions. The delegates also agreed that ICO should not act as a vehicle for publishing original research papers. Full use should be made of existing scientific journals..The delegates agreed that one of the roles of ICO should be to sponsor conferences at which sets of invited papers are given on some specialized field or fields of optics.

At the final session President Thomas Smith announced that he had been authorized to invite the ICO to hold the next meeting in 1950 in London. This announcement was accepted by acclamation.

The Second Congress, ICO-2, London, 19-26 Jul 1950

Thirty-three delegates from nine countries attended the second General Assembly of ICO in London in July of 1950. This was a smaller number than the 44 delegates from 11 countries at ICO-1. The Iron Curtain had in the meantime descended on Europe, and the Soviet Union had imposed severe limitations on representatives from the Soviet bloc attending or participating in meetings in the West. So Poland and Czechoslovakia, although they did not resign from ICO, and continued (reluctantly) to pay their assessments, did not attend the London meeting. This estrangement continued through the next Congress, ICO-3 at Madrid in 1953, but relaxed a little bit by ICO-5, in Stockholm in 1959, when Czech and Polish delegates, as well as observers from other Soviet-bloc countries, participated.)

Except for the unhappy rift with the Soviet bloc, the London meeting, ICO-2, was a great success. The national committee for optics of the host country had organized the concurrant London Conference on Optical Instruments, attended by about 250 scientists from 15 countries. From this time on it became usual for the national committee for optics hosting each ICO General Meeting also to organize scientific and technical conferences in optics to accompany the ICO Bureau Meetings. This also made it possible to hold, at the beginning of the conference, a Bureau session at which an agenda for ICO business was established, and nominations suggested for new Bureau members. Then committees could meet during the week and delegates could discuss candidates. A final session with Bureau elections was held at the close of the conference.

At the Bureau meeting held at the end of ICO-2, London, Prof A. C. S. van Heel of the Netherlands was elected president of ICO. One of his greatest interests was to try to link the various European optics groups into a closer relationship, perhaps as a European Optical Society, perhaps even with its own journal, somewhat like JOSA, the Journal of the Optical Society of America. These activities dominated ICO for the next few years, and at ICO-3, Madrid, in 1953, van Heel was re-elected president of ICO for another term.

ICO and Journals

Prior to World War II there were only two substantial optics groups in the world: the Institut d'Optique in Paris, which published a small journal, Revue d'Optique; and the Optical Society of America, which published a monthly JOSA (the Journal of the Optical Society of America). (About 1900 there had also been an Optical Society (London), but it had suffered from too few papers and poor attendance, and in 1931 it dissolved and became simply an interest group within the Physical Society.) In 1951 Prof van Heel, the president of ICO, remarked that "in optics all European workers can envy the Americans, who have an optical society with 2000 members and a perfectly satisfying monthly journal of 100 pages per issue. If only the Europeans could combine their fragmented efforts they could do the same." In May 1951 van Heel enlisted the help of the ICO Secretary at the Institut d'Optique to produce a sample copy of such an ICO journal, named Optica Acta, which he distributed to the ICO community. It included sample articles from a half-dozen ICO stalwarts, plus ICO news and some editorial content. But there the matter stalled; ICO did not have 2000 subscribers to help pay the cost of such a journal, and the Institut d'Optique was not eager to underwrite yet another journal; their own Revue d'Optique did not even pay its own way, and required support from the Institut. Prof van Heel then began to explore whether a commercial entrepeneureal publisher would have interest in publishing Optica Acta.

At ICO-3 Madrid 1953 the matter was discussed in detail. Some of the Europeans felt that the Americans were annoyed at the possible appearance of a European optics journal, because JOSA (the American journal) already contained a fair fraction ( 10 or 15%) of foreign papers, mostly European. But no, the American delegation presented a memorandum that in principle the Americans welcomed a European journal, the main problem would be how to keep professional editorial control and reasonable costs if the journal were commercially produced. Between 1953 and 1957 the Institut d'Optique continued to publish a thin Optica Acta, but in 1957 the publication was transferred to the British firm of Taylor and Francis. And so Optica Acta has limped along, encouraged by ICO (but not as its official journal), with few papers, few individual subscribers, and supported mainly by expensive library subscriptions. In 1987 the publisher changed its name to Journal of Modern Optics. When about that time the various European groups in optics merged into EOS, the European Optical Society, the founders of EOS unfortunately were not able to reach an agreement with the publisher of J. Mod. Opt., and instead created a new journal known as J. Eur. Opt. Soc. So the matter of an official journal for ICO continues to be unresolved.

One can speculate that, if the USA had not been a member of ICO from the beginning, perhaps ICO could have transformed itself earlier into a European Optical Society; but then Japan joined ICO in 1953, Canada in 1956, and Australia in 1959. Since then many other countries, in Asia, South America and even Africa, have joined ICO, so that now slightly more than half of the ICO members are non-European.

The ICO Bureau and elections

In the first years of ICO the principal organizers were such senior optical scientists as Fleury, Arnulf, van Heel, and Thomas Smith, all in their 50s and 60s. But there was also a group of bright, young, post-war scientists, all in their 30s: Maréchal, Françon, Ingelstam, Toraldo di Francia, and Ballard. These men subsequently became statesmen in optics and the pillars and stalwarts of ICO. Near the close of each ICO General Assemly a new Bureau is elected to serve until the next congress. A president is selected, usually serving only one term, and also a secretary and a treasurer (sometimes combined). For the secretary and treasurer some continuity of two or three terms is desirable. Then, after these positions are decided, another ballot is held to add two or three vice presidents to balance the territorial representation. The accompanying chart shows how the various territories have been represented in the first 17 Bureaux, (1948-1996). The USA has had 18 representatives, France 15, Great Britain 13, Netherlands 8, Germany 8, Japan 8, Italy 7, Poland 6, Australia 5, Spain 5, Czechoslovakia 4, Sweden 4, Canada 4, Hungary 2, USSR (Russia) 2, Finland 2, Mexico 2, Korea 2, the Chinese Optical Society 2, and Belgium, Israel, Austria, and the Optical Engineering Society located in Taipei, one each. The ICO Bureau has indeed shown a broad international composition.

ICO Elected Officers, 1948-1996 (by country)

Year President Secretary Treasurer Vice-Presidents
1948 U.K. France France Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, USA
1950 Netherlands France France Spain, UK
1953 Netherlands U.K. France Spain, Sweden
1956 USA U.K. (Sec-Treas) Italy, France, Germany
1959 Sweden U.K. (Sec-Treas) USA, Belgium
1962 France U.K. (Sec-Treas) USA, Japan, Germany
1966 Italy USA (Sec-Treas) Poland, Canada, Great Britain
1969 U.K. France (Sec-Treas) USA, Japan, Australia, Czechoslovakia
1972 Australia France (Sec-Treas) USA, Italy, Canada, Czechoslovakia
1975 Canada France USA Spain, Japan, Poland, Germany, U.K.
1978 Germany Netherlands USA Israel, Austria, Poland, Japan, U.K.
Year President Secretary Treasurer Vice-Presidents
1981 Japan Netherlands USA Italy, France, Sweden, Poland, Hungary
1984 France Netherlands USA USSR, USA, Finland, Canada, Australia
1987 USA U.K. Australia Italy, Mexico, Taipei, Germany, Czech
1990 U.K. France Australia Russia, Japan, Spain, Hungary, USA, Netherlands
1993 Italy France USA Japan, Poland, Korea, Chinese O.S., USA, Spain, Netherlands, Germany
1996 Japan France* USA Chinese O.S., Poland, Korea, Mexico, USA,Germany, U.K., Switzerland
1999 USA France USA Australia, Israel, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland
2002 Switzerland Spain USA Argentina, China, Israel, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Poland



In 1953 P. Fleury stepped down as Secretary,and was succeeded by W. D. Wright, who was elected Sec-Treas in 1956, 1959, and 1962. W. L. Hyde was elected Sec-Treas 1966, and J.-C. Vienot was elected Sec-Treas in 1969 and 1972, and Secretary in 1975. Since 1975 the Past President has been a Bureau member.

In 1996 a new position of Associate Secretary was created and the first Associate Secretary is from Finland.

Future Possibilities for ICO

It is now more than 50 years since the founding of ICO in 1947. It has grown from its original 11 member territories (ten in Europe plus the United States), to 45 territories, in every part of the world, representing every country with any significant activity in optics. In that same time period optics has grown dramatically, particularly since the development of the laser in 1960. Still, ICO is not a technical society, it does not publish a journal, and it has only a very limited budget of about $ 25 000 a year. It can only sponsor and endorse activities of other groups, and it relies completely on unpaid volunteers for its operation. Perhaps the time is ripe for ICO to cease being only an independant affiliated commission of IUPAP, and form itself into the International Union of Optical Science and Technology. There is some precedent for such a change, as new unions have been formed from time to time. URSI, the International Union for Radio Sciences, was a Commission on Scientific Radiotelegraphy before becoming a union in 1922.

Since World War II more than 25 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work in optics and spectroscopy. To name just a few, there are Zernike and Gabor in image formation and holography, Townes, Kastler, Schawlow, and Bloembergen in lasers and spectroscopy; Mulliken, Herzberg, and Polanyi in chemical spectroscopy, and Wald, Granit, Hartline and Cormack in medical optics. Laser optics now ranges from optical computing, to fiber optics communication ; from "smart bombs" in the military, to scanners at check-out counters in the grocery store. Optics is almost unique in being both a field of challenging scientific study and also an important tool that can be applied to many other fields of science and technology. Perhaps at age 50 ICO is ready to grow to a larger mission.

Some of the participants at the first official meeting of ICO held in 12-17 July 1948 at the Physics Laboratory of the Technische Hogeschool, Delft, Netherlands.

(*): Last update May 2005, by Maria L. Calvo