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Keep conditions right for invention

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2012

High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation. – Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric starter

Contemplating the many contributions of Elias Snitzer, whose pioneering work in glass lasers helped bring about a communications revolution, made me wonder about the atmosphere prevalent in his day that supported such discovery. Were expectations high? Was there a sense of competition? Was invention rewarded and protected?

Snitzer, who died May 21 at the age of 87, had a four-decades-long career as an engineer and educator. Known as the father of the glass laser, he demonstrated the first Nd:glass laser in 1961, hot on the heels of Theodore H. Maiman’s report of the first crystalline laser based on ruby. His contributions made possible the fiber optics technology on which the Internet and other communications systems operate.

Laser “firsts” dropped like boom-era babies in the years right after Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow published on the concept in 1958. No doubt excitement and healthy competition, not to mention forward thinkers with markets in mind, fueled the many advances made during that time.

Decades before Snitzer and his laser contemporaries found success, Charles Kettering was changing the world through improved automobile operation and safety with his groundbreaking work at Delco and GM Research. In roughly the same era in which Einstein defined stimulated emission, laying the groundwork for the laser, Kettering was revolutionizing transportation. As with Kettering, Snitzer was inventive throughout his long career.

With degrees in electrical engineering from Tufts University and in physics from the University of Chicago, Snitzer began his career at Honeywell Industrial Instruments Div., working on thermal detector technology. He taught at Lowell (Mass.) Technological Institute before joining American Optical, where he began his work in optical fibers and lasers.

At Polaroid Corp. in the 1980s, he and his team first demonstrated the double-clad fiber laser, thereby facilitating optical pumping of fiber lasers and amplifiers. After Polaroid, he worked at Rutgers University, where he continued to teach and to research fiber laser amplifiers, glass and fiber Bragg gratings until his retirement in 2001, according to an OSA release.

At the end of the day, patent laws mean nothing without curious and determined inventors such as Kettering and Snitzer. “Dr. Snitzer made a huge difference to our field, and his work has contributed to and influenced our world in profound ways,” said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs in a statement following Snitzer’s death. His influence will no doubt be felt for some time to come.

Charles Kettering reportedly said, “My interest is in the future, because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” I don’t know how much Snitzer and the other laser pioneers thought about the future and the influence of their work, but they certainly watched both unfold around them. Perhaps we can best honor Snitzer’s memory by maintaining optimal conditions for discovery and invention, and in so doing, continue to ensure a tomorrow in which people will want to spend their lives.


GLOSSARY
optical communications
The transmission and reception of information by optical devices and sensors.
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