Rochester’s win in the national contest to be the headquarters site of the $600 million American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics should come as no surprise.
An outgrowth of optics, the discipline that plumbs the physical properties of light, photonics develops practical applications for light. It figures in the digital images captured on cellphone cameras, lasers, light-emitting diodes and the fiber-optic cables that carry much of the Internet-delivered information we have come to rely on.
In the last century, when photonics began to stir as a distinct discipline, Rochester was primed and ready to excel in the emerging field.
Light mattered to Rochester because it mattered to companies such as Eastman Kodak Co.,
Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb Inc.—industrial powerhouses that helped make the region prosperous and stable through much of the 20th century.
The fortunes of Bausch & Lomb and Kodak initially rose and directly depended on lenses, perhaps the most basic tool used to manipulate light.
In 1853, a recent German immigrant lens grinder, John Jacob Bausch, opened an optical shop in Rochester. He sold eyeglasses, opera glasses, field glasses, magnifying glasses and thermometers. He soon took on Henry Lomb as a partner.
A fellow German immigrant who had helped finance Bausch’s shop with a $60 loan, Lomb joined the Union Army during the Civil War. After he returned in 1864, the partners changed the firm’s name from the Optical Institute of Rochester to Bausch & Lomb Opticians Inc.
Kodak founder George Eastman was an avid enough amateur photographer to have gone to England to learn how to make gelatin dry plates. He wanted to simplify the cumbersome and messy methods then needed to produce a photographic image. In 1883, he succeeded, inventing a transparent photographic film that could be rolled up and stored inside a camera.
Eastman started Kodak in 1888, naming the firm with a self-invented word he thought would be catchy. It was one of a welter of photographic and optics firms springing up in Rochester at the time. Eastman’s idea—selling easy to use pre-loaded cameras—caught on, making Kodak the most successful.
After snapping their way through a roll of Kodak film, customers had only to send the entire camera back to Kodak’s Rochester factory. The company developed the film and printed out pictures.
“You snap the picture. We do the rest,” the company promised, putting the word snapshot into the English lexicon and giving rise to the phrase Kodak moment.
As Eastman was establishing Kodak, Henry Lomb was one of a group of Rochester business leaders who founded the Mechanics Institute in 1885, a school now known as Rochester Institute of Technology. Eastman was an early supporter of the school and an important donor.
Recognizing that enough discoveries in the science of light were being made to justify breaking it out from physics as its own discipline, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards established an optics division in 1903.
Kodak, one of the first U.S. companies to put scientists on staff, hired an NBS optics division physicist, Perley Nutting, to work in its newly established research division in 1910. Nutting had then been writing to U.S. and European colleagues whom he was trying to interest in forming a professional optics society.
In 1912, Nutting published a book calling for more academic focus on optics. The beginning of World War I ushered in a blockade of Germany. The ban cut off U.S. supplies of optical-grade German glass. Partly fueled by the heightened interest in developing the optical theory needed to replace German glass, Nutting pulled together a group of Rochester-based physicists to form the Optical Society of America in November 1915. The organization had its first meeting some two months later on Jan. 4, 1916.
Some of the society’s members later helped found the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics, whose researchers during World War II played a key role in developing innovations such as night vision goggles.
In the second half of the 20th century, the evolution of optics into photonics picked up its pace.
First developed in 1960, lasers—devices that tightly focus beams of light—have since made possible a slew of inventions ranging from optical scanners and printers to pointers. Established in 1970, UR’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics shares its East River Road building with the Center for Optoelectronics and Imaging and the Center for Optics Manufacturing. One of the top U.S. optics research centers, it is home to Omega, among the most powerful lasers in the world.
RIT, whose College of Imaging Science was the first U.S. school to offer an imaging science Ph.D., also has been a key contributor to optical science. It first established a photographic technology department in 1930, expanding the department throughout World War II.
In 1954, RIT created a division of photography and printing. Six years later, it established the School of Photography. In the 1990s, RIT created the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies, a key institution that can help area entrepreneurs leverage the region’s rich background in optics to create practical light-based applications.
Located some 90 miles south of Rochester in Steuben County, glassmaker Corning Inc. helped developed the fiber-optic cables that instantaneously send gigabytes of information winging around the globe.
The role Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox play in the Rochester economy has shrunk. But their legacy lives on in the thriving programs they fostered at UR and RIT and in scores of local companies created by alumni of the manufacturing trio once known locally as the Big Three.
“Despite downsizing by its major employers and changes in the labor market, Rochester has
remained competitive in the optics, imaging, and photonics industry,” Susan Christopherson, a Cornell University city and regional planning professor, wrote in a 2002 analysis of the Rochester region’s optics and photonics industry.
“Even in light of increased global competition, Rochester has retained a concentration of firms that is known internationally. There has been a recent proliferation of smaller firms, generally in the area of photonics,” Christopherson found.
In 2001, Kodak, Xerox, Corning and New York State kicked off the Canandaigua Infotonics Center Inc., created to foster commercialization of optics and photonics discoveries.
In 2010, the Infotonics Center merged with the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, which in 2014 merged with the SUNY Institute of Technology to form SUNY Polytechnic, the lead institution for the AIM Photonics center.
“You’ve gone from making Brownie cameras to the lenses that are now mapping the far side of Pluto,” Vice President Joe Biden said last July at the official announcement of Rochester as the AIM Photonics center’s headquarters.
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