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Celebrating a century of light

July 2016 Number 108

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Celebrating a century of light

The Optical Society reflects on its achievements in the last 100 years.


Elsa Garmire, c.1969, patented devices that enhanced optical communications including lasers, waveguides, and detectors. Garmire served as OSA president in 1993. Image credit: OSA Archives.

Since its founding in 1916, 100 years ago, The Optical Society has brought together a global community of scientists, engineers, business leaders, and students whose work in optics and photonics has transformed the world.

“Our Centennial is not only an opportunity to capture the legacy of the Society and the optics field, but also a chance to explore the future of our exciting scientific and technological breakthroughs,” stated Alan E Willner, 2016 president of The Optical Society and Steven and Kathryn Sample, chair in engineering, University of Southern California, California, USA. “Over the past century, there has been a dramatic advance in our understanding of light and the capabilities of our technologies, as well as an explosion in light-enabled applications. Undoubtedly, there remains tremendous potential to address challenges such as supporting health and medicine as well as the continued exponential growth of the Internet. We are only at the beginning of what optics technology can do, and The Optical Society and its members will continue to be at the the science of light.”

 At a 1931 meeting, Albert Einstein with honorary OSA members A A Michelson (left) and Robert Millikan (right).

As World War I loomed in Europe, the demand for technological innovations grew increasingly urgent. It was against this backdrop that Perley G Nutting, a scientist at the US Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, recognized the need for an organized scientific home for optical engineering and technology. After moving to Rochester, New York, to take a position at Eastman Kodak Company, Nutting and other Rochester area luminaries founded The Optical Society of America (OSA) in 1916 with a focus on advancing applied optics.

“The Optical Society was created in an environment where scientific collaboration was a challenge,” said Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of The Optical Society. “Our founders saw the need to bring together the best scientific minds in industry and academia to share ideas in pursuit of technological breakthroughs. Today, The Optical Society serves as a global catalyst for the science of light. We are proud of the scientists and corporate leaders, including 34 Nobel Laureates, who are inspiring scientific discovery.”

What follows are a few of the many scientific accomplishments in the Society’s first century.

Picturing the future with photography

In the 1920s, The Optical Society established its first and most prestigious award in honour of Frederic Ives, inventor of modern photoengraving and a pioneer in colour photography, three-colour process printing, and 3D stereoscopic photography. Ives served as OSA president in 1924–1925.

C E K Mees, another luminary, brought numerous advances to scientific photography during a 43-year career at Eastman Kodak, including the development of sensitive photographic emulsions that allowed the capture of astronomical images. An OSA award was named in Mees’ memory in 1961.

 Edwin Land debuts the film for what would become the Polaroid instant camera at a 1947 OSA meeting. Credit: OSA Archives.

Another groundbreaking moment came at a 1947 OSA meeting, when Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid, demonstrated his new instant-photography system to the public for the first time.

The laser ushers in a new era

Although Einstein described the principle of stimulated emission in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 1953 that a device exhibiting this principle was built. That was the year Charles Hard Townes, James Gordon, and H J Ziegler constructed what they called a maser. Today masers are used in atomic clocks, radio telescopes, and ground stations communicating with spacecraft.

In 1960, Theodore Maiman developed the ruby laser. His invention, based on theoretical work by Townes and Arthur L Schawlow, successfully on the very first try.

“The mid-century discoveries in optics created entirely new fields of discovery and technology applications,” said Dr Gregory Quarles, chief scientist of The Optical Society. “Advanced manufacturing, for example, deploys high-powered lasers to cut and bond materials. The recent discovery of gravitational waves was made possible with laser technology and has opened up a new realm of possible discoveries, forever changing astrophysics.”

Connecting the world through light

It wasn’t long after the invention of the laser that scientists first began to investigate how it could interact with waveguides, including glass optical fibres. 50 years ago, OSA member Charles K Kao and George Hockham at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, UK, realized that increasing the purity of glass optical fibres could allow the transmission of light signals over a distance of 100 km, about five times farther than the best fibres available at the time. Kao is today known as the “father of fibre optics,” and in 2009 he received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work.

DGaO ICO May 2016 Hannover, Germany. From left: Prof. Yasuhiko Arakawa, ICO president; Dr Frank Höller, DGaO chairman; Prof. Monika Sester, vice-president for international affairs/Leibniz University of Hanover; Dr Gabriele Heinen-Kljajic ́, minister for science and research/Lower Saxony; Prof. Eduard Reithmeier, local host chairman.

Microscopy reveals the invisible

The advent of the laser and the development of techniques for using fluorescent proteins as tags led to new microscopy methods for watching intricate biological processes such as gene expression, the development of neurons, and the spread of cancer cells. OSA fellow William E Moerner and OSA members Stefan Hell and Eric Betzig built on these advances by developing super-resolution microscopy, a family of techniques that uses laser-excited fluorescence to produce images of single molecules by overcoming the diffraction of the traditional optical microscope. They shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work.

A bright future for the science of light

100 after its founding, The Optical Society has grown from a small group of luminaries to a diverse worldwide membership of more than 19,000 dedicated to advancing knowledge and applications of optics and photonics. Join our 100th Birthday Bash at Frontiers in Optics, 17–21 October 2016, where we were founded in Rochester, New York, USA.

• This story was adapted from an article in Physics Today.

Contact: Rebecca Andersen, director of public relations,
The Optical Society
tel: +1 202.416.1443

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