A Profile of Walter Baird

Walter Scott Baird is one of the unsung heroes of OSA. Although he never served as an OSA president or won any of the Society’s awards, he probably did more to bring the Society in step with modern times than any other individual.

 

OPN coversWalter S. Baird

Baird was born Oct. 2, 1908, in Long Green, Md. After receiving a degree from St. John’s College, he obtained his doctorate in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins in 1934. He then served as an instructor at Harvard for a year or two before forming a small company in Cambridge, Mass., called Baird Associates, which built a line of infrared spectrometers and performed contractual research, mostly in optics. Some of his colleagues were Bruce Billings, W. Lewis Hyde, David Z. Robinson, Myron Block and Robert Burley, all of whom were active in OSA. Baird joined the Optical Society early in his career and served as its vice president for meetings. From 1955 until 1959, he was an OSA director-at-large.

In the late 1950s, Baird felt strongly that OSA was not moving quickly enough to keep up with the times. Even though he counted himself as a spectroscopist, he thought that OSA and its journal, JOSA, were too dominated by spectroscopy at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and MIT, and by the lens designers and photography types in Rochester. (George Harrison of MIT and Wallace Brode of NBS were the editors of JOSA, and the OSA Board was heavily populated with color and photography people from Eastman Kodak and lens designers from the Rochester Institute of Optics and Bausch and Lomb.)

Baird believed that those professionals working in the new and exciting areas of interferometry, Fourier transform techniques, remote sensing and space probes were not being attracted to OSA, and that something drastic needed to be done to set matters right. In 1956, he took part in what he would later call “the insurrection at Lake Placid.” One evening at the annual meeting in Lake Placid, N.Y.—an isolated spot free of big city lights and distractions—he sat up late arguing about where OSA was headed with Irving Gardner of NBS, the OSA president-elect, and Dave MacAdam of Eastman Kodak. At 2 a.m., they woke up Ralph Sawyer of the University of Michigan, the then-president of OSA, so that he could join the discussions.

As a result of these talks, Sawyer asked a small committee chaired by Gardner to report to the membership at the next annual meeting in October 1957 on the state of the Society. That report urged the Society to broaden the subjects of interest covered at OSA meetings and in JOSA. At the October 1957 Board meeting, a new committee was appointed, called the “Committee on Future Policies” (often known as the Baird Committee), whose purpose was to appraise the Society from the point of view of optics today and trends in the future.

The committee consisted of Walter Baird (chair), Wallace Brode, Stanley Ballard, Ed McAlister, Deane Judd and Robert Hopkins. At the March 1958 Board meeting, the Baird Committee presented nine recommendations, all of which were endorsed by the Board for implementation or further study. The most important of these was that the Society was now big enough to establish an Executive Office, probably in Washington, D.C., with a full-time Executive Secretary. (Other physical science societies were considering similar moves.) The Baird Committee also recommended that OSA translate and publish the Soviet journal Optics and Spectroscopy. A third recommendation was that OSA should consider starting a second journal to capture applied or interdisciplinary papers that did not appear to be flowing to JOSA. (This journal eventually came to be known as Applied Optics.)

Baird did not stop his crusade after he had served on a committee. Rather, he helped translate his recommendations into realities. After giving some thought to who might become a full-time executive secretary, his committee suggested Mary Warga, a professor at Pittsburgh who had recently served as an OSA director. Baird urged John Strong, a friend of Warga’s, to “serve as a fishing rod” and persuade her to accept the OSA position—which she did. (Baird later presented Strong with an actual fishing rod for his successful luring of Mary Warga.)

He pushed the concept of OSA translating the Soviet journal by having selected articles translated and then circulating them to several people whose opinions would be valued. He also had specific ideas on how the editorial mechanics of the proposed translation journal would work. In addition, he had determined that Patricia Wakeling—who had worked on scientific journals for some time in New York and London—could help get the new interdisciplinary journal off the ground; he had Stanley Ballard in mind for the position of editor.

When all these changes were being discussed, Baird regularly attended OSA meetings. He did not spend much time listening to papers, though. He was more interested in meeting key people and talking about the future of the Society. At the hotels where the meetings were held, he often held court in his room, talking about his ideas until late into the night with a coterie of friends. (I attended some of these sessions, even long before I was under consideration for the editorship of Applied Optics.)

As the new executive office began to function, and the new journals took shape, Baird watched with satisfaction. And with the appearance of the laser, optical science moved into high gear. Fortunately, OSA was properly positioned to reap the benefits of this resurgence in optics. Walter Baird had maneuvered the Optical Society into the right place at the right time.


John N. Howard is the founding editor of Applied Optics and retired chief scientist of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory.

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A Profile of Walter Baird

Walter Scott Baird is one of the unsung heroes of OSA. Although he never served as an OSA president or won any of the Society’s awards, he probably did more to bring the Society in step with modern times than any other individual.

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