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  • Fiber Laser Pioneer Honored with IEEE Milestone
Oct 2012
By Melinda Rose, Senior Editor

SOUTHBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 31, 2012 — Elias Snitzer, the father of fiber lasers and fiber amplifiers, was honored posthumously Friday by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) with a granite plaque across the street from the former American Optical headquarters, where his discoveries were made.

Eli Snitzer at the Optical Society's Optical Fiber Conference in 1994. Snitzer was honored posthumously Friday by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for constructing and operating the first optical fiber laser. Courtesy OSA.

 Snitzer’s contributions to photonics research spanned more than four decades and helped bring about the fiber optics technology on which the Internet and other communications systems operate.

In 1961, just a year after the first laser was demonstrated, American Optical employee Snitzer and colleagues built and operated the first optical fiber laser and, three years later, the first optical fiber amplifier. Snitzer's inventions include both neodymium- and erbium-doped laser glass, and he co-developed the first fiber optic laser amplifier with laser glass.

Snitzer passed away in May (See: Fiber Optics Pioneer Dies), but four of his five children were in attendance, as were IEEE President Gordon W. Day, past IEEE Photonics Society President James J. Coleman and IEEE Photonics Society Executive Director Richard Linke.

"His achievements really were seminal," said Day, "and the technologies that were demonstrated across the street ultimately changed the world as we know it."

Eli Snitzer's children (l-r) Peter Snitzer, Barbara Konowicz, Helen Paret and Sandra Tristano stand behind the IEEE milestone dedicated to their father with IEEE President Gordon Day (second from left). Photonics Media photo by Melinda Rose.

Former American Optical employee Dick Whitney, director of the Optical Heritage Museum and an employee of Carl Zeiss Vision's Southbridge office, spent a year organizing the event with IEEE, which also featured presentations by science author and historian Jeff Hecht and several local officials. The ceremony took place in a park across from the former entrance to the American Optical headquarters. The building, except the original lobby area and the front facade, was demolished in 2000 and the Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center constructed.

The IEEE Milestone is the 129th that the institute has dedicated over the past 30 or so years, Day said. Previous honors noted the demonstration of the first laser and the first low-loss optical fiber, just to name a few.

Eli Snitzer working at American Optical in 1964. Courtesy OSA.

"This milestone takes its place among the work of people like Benjamin Franklin and James Clerk Maxwell, and along achievements like the invention of the battery, Marconi's work on wireless, the first demonstration of superconductivity, [and] the invention of the transistor," Day said.

"American Optical was the first company in the United States, and I'm pretty sure the first company in the world, to actually start working on trying to develop fiber optics as a commercial technology," Hecht said. He is the author of "City of Light," a book on the history of fiber optics. "American Optical was the first place to observe single-mode transmission in an optical fiber, which is what is used all through the world's telecommunications networks today."

The Snitzer children who attended the dedication were Helen Paret of Massachusetts, Peter Snitzer of Ohio, Sandra Tristano of Illinois and Barbara Konowicz of Virginia.

"It's really been a wonderful thing," Paret told Photonics Media of the honor. "My dad passed away just this May, and it's kind of unfortunate that he wasn't here today, but he would have loved it."

She added that having a physical reminder of her father's work is also appreciated by the family.

Those who gathered to pay tribute to Eli Snitzer on Oct. 26 included former colleagues, his children, members of IEEE, and others in the optics industry. Photonics Media photo by Melinda Rose.

"It's really a great honor that his work is recognized like this, and it's something that will be here forever. I feel like I can bring my grandchildren and see the Milestone. It's really an honor for all of us," she said.

On behalf of IEEE, Hecht also presented an award to fiber optics pioneer Will Hicks, a colleague of Snitzer's who attended the ceremony.

"Will Hicks began his long career in fiber optics at American Optical," Hecht said. "His groundbreaking achievements in this field include the first fused fiber bundles that are used in medical imaging and the first drawing of single-mode fiber."

Sponsors of the event were Henke Sass Wolf of America Inc., Carl Zeiss Vision, Schott North America Inc. and J.I. Morris Co.

For more information about the history of American Optical, visit: For more information about IEEE, visit:

fiber laser
A laser in which the lasing medium is an optical fiber doped with low levels of rare-earth halides to make it capable of amplifying light. Output is tunable over a broad range and can be broadband. Laser diodes can be used for pumping because of the fiber laser's low threshold power, eliminating the need for cooling.
optical fiber
A thin filament of drawn or extruded glass or plastic having a central core and a cladding of lower index material to promote total internal reflection (TIR). It may be used singly to transmit pulsed optical signals (communications fiber) or in bundles to transmit light or images.  
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