By Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor
On behalf of all my colleagues at the Optical Society, I would like to wish a very happy birthday to the author of this blog—John N. Howard, OSA Past President (1991) and Fellow Emeritus. John turned 90 years young yesterday, on 27 February 2011. He has been a member of the Society for an amazing 67 years. John joined OSA in 1944, and he was elected as a Fellow in 1961. He is the 1987 recipient of the OSA Distinguished Service Award, which is presented to individuals for outstanding service to the Society over an extended period of time. John continues to serve OSA as the editor of OPN’s monthly column on the History of OSA. He is also a key contributor to the OSA History Project and a member of the OSA Presidential Advisory Committee.
John tells me that he was born to British parents in Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.A., but that he grew up in Florida. After he received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Florida, he worked in spectroscopy in Cleveland at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA. He then served in the Air Force for a time before returning to graduate school at Ohio State University. He received an M.Sc. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1954, both in molecular spectroscopy.
In 1954, he joined the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL), which was later renamed the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory. His research interests were in infrared atmospheric transmission. He later headed the infrared physics branch, and in 1960, the optical physics division. In 1964, he became chief scientist of AFCRL, a post he held for 17 years.
In addition to being a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society, he was also somewhat active in the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the History of Science Society. He served on various committees (usually related to publications) for each of these societies. He also served on the AIP Publication Policy Committee and for eight years on the Physics Today advisory committee, which he chaired for three of those years.
From 1981 until 1987, Howard served as vice president and treasurer of the International Commission for Optics (ICO), and he compiled a brief history of ICO for its 50th anniversary. He also served on several OSA committees, and in 1960 he was appointed as the founding editor of Applied Optics (AO), the new, second journal of OSA. AO began in 1962 as a modest journal that published only six issues each year of about 100 pages each. However, it caught on rapidly, becoming a monthly a year later, a semi-monthly a few years after that, and, by the late-1980s, it was publishing 5,000 pages per year.
After serving in this role for 27 years, he finally retired in 1987, leaving AO in good hands and with excellent prospects for continued success and growth. (It has since doubled in size.) From 1983 until 1989, he also served as editor of Optics News, the predecessor to Optics & Photonics News, the magazine of the Optical Society. He described this gig as “a much calmer operation.” In 1991, he served as OSA’s president.
John’s interest in the history of science centered on the contributions of Lord Rayleigh, and he spent many years organizing Rayleigh’s manuscripts and correspondence.
Most people working in scientific and technical areas have a favorite Society—a place to present and publish their papers and to meet and keep aware of related work by their colleagues. John’s favorite society was OSA. He says, “The crowd that makes up the OSA community is a curious mixture of disparate types—from pure physicists at the cutting edge of fundamental research, to applied scientists who use optical techniques to probe other phenomena, to engineers who apply optics to such fields as communications or computing. This diversity of interests keeps OSA vigorous and young, and we must somehow not let it grow old.” I know that John never does.
Optics History, OSA History, Profiles