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Optics Innovator Hopkins Dies
Jul 2009
ITHACA, N.Y., July 16, 2009 – Robert E. Hopkins, widely characterized as the “father of optical engineering” and recognized as an expert and innovator in optical instrument design, aspheric optics, interferometry, lasers and lens testing, died July 4. He was 94.

RobertHopkins.jpgHopkins was one of the first scientists to exploit the computer as a tool for designing optical systems and also among the first to recognize the important role the laser would play in the future of subjects like solid-state and quantum physics. His lens designs included the Todd-AO lens used to produce high-definition, wide-aspect-ratio films shot on large-format film, beginning with “Oklahoma!” in 1955. The technology superseded the complex three-projector Cinerama process and made possible the widespread creation and projection of 70-mm wide-screen movies.

The former director of the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics and a University of Rochester alumnus, Hopkins trained and inspired hundreds of students who went on to leading positions in the field of optics.

Hopkins graduated from MIT in 1937 with a bachelor of science degree. After earning his advanced degrees at Rochester, he worked in the Naval Office of Research and Development and in 1948 was awarded a US Navy Citation for outstanding wartime service. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the Institute of Optics in 1939 and 1945, respectively, directed the Institute of Optics from 1954 to 1965 and was a member of the Rochester faculty from 1945 to the 1980s.

In 1953, he co-founded Tropel Inc., a firm dedicated to manufacturing precision optical systems and instruments for industry. His achievements at building Tropel and the success of one of his professional colleagues, John H. Bruning, led in 2007 to the creation of the Robert E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design and Engineering. A $2-million gift from Bruning, who is the former CEO of Tropel Corp., established the Hopkins Center within the Robert B. Goergen Hall for Biomedical Engineering and Optics.

“Bob gave enormously to the world of optics as a scientist, an engineer, an entrepreneur and leader. He was a significant figure in optical engineering, and his history at the University of Rochester will continue to inspire future generations of students,” Bruning said in a statement released by the university.

“I remember my first class with Bob, when he said that, after a while, you can look at a lens design and tell whether it will work,” said Duncan T. Moore, Rudolph and Hilda Kingslake Professor of Optical Engineering at Rochester, in the same statement. “I was incredibly doubtful, but about 10 years later, when I taught optical engineering, I realized he was right. He also was a great entrepreneur at a time that the role of a university in economic development was 40 years in the future,” said Moore, who also is vice provost for entrepreneurship at Rochester. “More than 50 companies have been started by Institute of Optics faculty, students and staff. What a legacy!”

Wayne Knox, current director of the Institute of Optics, said in the statement that Hopkins is widely revered as the “father of optical engineering. He is one of the icons in the field.”

During his years at Rochester, Hopkins traveled frequently to Ithaca to use an early computer at Cornell University, and he brought the first computers to the University of Rochester in 1955. In 1963, he organized the “Laser Road Show” for the National Science Foundation to introduce laser technologies at colleges, universities and corporations.

Hopkins left Rochester in 1967 to serve as president of Tropel, a maker of customized precision optical instrumentation that is now a division of Corning. He returned to the university’s Laboratory of Laser Energetics as chief optical engineer from 1975 to 1982 and continued to teach as professor of optics and as professor emeritus.

Hopkins’ accomplishments were honored by membership in Sigma Xi, the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Physical Society (fellow), the Optical Society of America (fellow, director 1955-60, Ives Medal 1970, president 1973) and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics (board of governors, Gold Medal 1983), and he served on numerous advisory panels.

In addition, the Robert E. Hopkins Professorship in Optics was established in 2002 at Rochester in his honor. James R. Fienup now holds the professorship. Hopkins was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Barbara Ann Barnes, and is survived by six children, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial celebration of his life and reception will be held Sunday, Aug. 16, at 1:30 p.m. at the University of Rochester Interfaith Chapel.

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