OSA’s Charter Members

A look at the lives of some of OSA’s founding fathers.


OPN coversA group photo from OSA’s 1921 annual meeting.

In late December 1916, 30 optical scientists met in a classroom at Columbia University and voted to form the Optical Society of America. These “charter members” are listed alphabetically in the first OSA directory, which was published in 1917. Adelbert Ames, Jr., leads the list as member #1. In later years, members were given numbers in sequence of joining. Here are brief biographical sketches for a few charter members.

Adelbert Ames Jr.

Adelbert Ames Jr., was born in Lowell, Mass., U.S.A., in 1880. He was the son of a famous father of the same name. The elder Ames was a Union general in the Civil War who fought at Bull Run and Gettysburg. Later, during the Reconstruction, he served as governor of Mississippi and also as a senator from that state. (He lived to be 97 and was the last Civil War general to die. He was also somewhat of an engineer, and he constructed several clever mechanical devices, including a pencil sharpener.)

Ames Jr. started his academic career at Harvard, where he obtained a law degree. While there, he also studied philosophy under both George Santayana and William James. He practiced law for a few years but was not happy in that occupation. Instead, he decided to become a painter like his sister Blanche. Together, they pondered whether the quality of visual art could be improved by the scientific study of vision. Ames set about improving his knowledge of the dioptrics of the eye. He assumed that, once he had mastered this topic, he would return to painting. Ultimately, though, his studies mastered him, and Ames made vision his life’s work.

He made contributions to physics, physiology, ophthalmology, psychology and philosophy. After thorough studies of the work of Hermann Helmholtz, he was invited to teach at Dartmouth, where he did pioneering work in physiological optics, first as a professor, and then as the founder and director of the Dartmouth Eye Institute.

He is probably best known for constructing several optical illusions, including the Ames Room (constructed in 1946), the Ames Window and the Ames chair. One can find an Ames room in many museums of science (and sometimes in fun houses). If one stands at a certain spot to look into the room, it appears to be a straightforward cube-shaped room, with doors and windows on the sides and opposite ends. But in reality the walls and windows are trapezoidal. A small child standing at one near corner of the room seems to grow to twice her size as she walks to the diagonal corner.

Ames wrote 38 books and scientific papers and was awarded 21 patents, mostly on topics related to vision. The Optical Society awarded him its Tillyer Medal in 1955. In his Tillyer address, he remarked: “I jumped into scientific research without prior training in that field. Had I known more, I would never have had the temerity to undertake it.”

Ames grew up in New England, but he was not related to Oakes Ames, the politician from North Easton, Mass., who commissioned the architect Henry Hobson Richardson to design several buildings in the Boston area, including the Ames Building in downtown Boston. In an interesting twist, however, Adelbert’s sister Blanche married Oakes Ames, Jr., the son of Oakes Ames.

Charles Warnock Frederick

Charles Warnock Frederick was born in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A., and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1892. He was good at mathematics and got a job as a “computer” at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1901. Two years later, he was an assistant on the equatorial telescope, and in 1904 he was sent to Tutulla, Samoa, to supervise the construction and operation of an observatory there for the southern hemisphere.

In 1909, Frederick went on to teach math at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In 1914, he was invited to establish a lens-design program at Eastman Kodak. He accepted, even though he knew nothing about lens design. He was aided in his new position by Frank Ross. In 1916, a young Fred Altman also joined his group.

Their first job was to design aerial camera lenses for the armed forces in World War I. After the war, they went on to design many lenses for Kodak equipment. Frederick retired in 1938, and he was succeeded by Rudolf Kingslake. His studies of nonsilica glass led to the development of the first new optical glass since the 1880s.

Charles Edward Kenneth Mees

Charles Edward Kenneth Mees was born in Wellingborough, England. He attended public schools and earned a B.Sc. in 1903 and a D.Sc. in 1906 from University College, London, where he studied under William Ramsay. His doctoral research was on the rates of chemical reactions related to photography. He then joined the well-established photographic firm of Wratten and Wainwright. That company valued his potential so highly that it set up a subsidiary devoted to scientific consulting in photographic problems, with Mees as partner and managing director. Mees successfully developed process improvements and new products, such as improved resolution emulsions for use in dry-plate photography. He also did research on color photography.

His growing reputation as a student of the chemical processes underlying photography gained him the attention of George Eastman, whom Mees had met in 1909 in a visit to the factories of Eastman Kodak. That company had achieved great success selling photography to the public with the slogan: “You push the button, we do the rest.”

In 1912, with early patents expiring and trade secrets insecure, Eastman saw the need for a research lab to help rebuild Kodak’s competitive edge, and he offered Mees the job as its director. (To further persuade Wratten and Wainwright to let Mees go to Rochester, Eastman also purchased the entire firm.) Mees came to Rochester around 1912, with authorization to hire 17 researchers, beginning with an annual budget of just over $50,000. One of the first he hired was Perley G. Nutting from the National Bureau of Standards (NBS)—OSA’s founder and first president. Mees is memorialized by the society’s C.E.K. Mees International Medal.

William Weber Coblentz

William Weber Coblentz was born near North Lima, Ohio, where his father was a farmer. He prepared for college by working at a variety of odd jobs, and he received a B.S. from Case School of Applied Science in 1900. He then enrolled at Cornell to study physics. He was particularly interested in infrared spectroscopy, a field that was in its infancy. At that time, glass optics and thermocouples permitted only spectral wavelengths of less than 5 µm to be observed. He partially solved this limitation in 1901 when he built a radiometric device with rocksalt windows that permitted the detection of infrared wavelengths from 5 to 15 µm. He received his M.S. in 1901 and his Ph.D. in 1903.

Coblentz remained at Cornell for two more years as a post-doctoral fellow. He was also a research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He measured the infrared spectra of thousands of organic molecular substances, creating a useful database for future investigations. In 1905, he joined the staff of the newly organized NBS as chief of the radiometry section, a position that he held for 40 years. There, he developed methods and equipment to establish standards for measuring infrared radiant energy in scientific applications.

In 1909, Coblentz contributed to the development of quantum physics when he made the first accurate determination of the radiation constants of a blackbody. In 1914, he made a major advance in astrophysics by conducting the first systematic infrared astronomical observations. He measured the radiation emitted by Venus, Mars and Jupiter, as well as 110 stars. Between 1921 and 1938, he continued such studies, at first largely of the infrared spectrum, but also involving solar ultraviolet measurements.

As a member of the Harvard University eclipse expedition, he studied the electromagnetic radiation of the sun’s corona during solar eclipses in 1925 and 1926. After 1928, he gradually shifted away from infrared spectroscopy and began studying the ultraviolet spectrum. He was particularly interested in establishing safe dosage units for medical treatment using ultraviolet radiation.

In 1945, Coblentz was awarded with the Ives Medal. That same year, he retired from NBS, although he continued to work there as a consultant. He turned his attention to the scientific investigation of psychic phenomena: extrasensory perception, telekinesis, mental telepathy, materializations and clairvoyance. He thought that perhaps there was a human organic receptor of cerebral radiant energy that might make some such phenomena possible. In 1954, he described his efforts to detect a “sixth sense” in the book Man’s Place in a Superphysical World. (That book is still available at Amazon.com, but the phenomena remain elusive.)

Over the years, he won several awards from the Franklin Institute, the Society of Applied Spectroscopy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1951, he wrote an autobiography, titled From the Life of a Researcher. In 1954, the Coblentz Society was organized to promote the application of infrared spectra data. William F. Meggers wrote a biography and bibliography of Coblentz for the NAS Biographical Memoirs in 1967. The journal Applied Optics published a feature issue commemorating Coblentz in November 1963.

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

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OSA’s Charter Members

A look at the lives of some of OSA’s founding fathers.

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