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In memoriam: Elias Snitzer, fiber laser pioneer

24 May 2012

Laser pioneer Elias Snitzer, inventor of the glass laser, the fiber laser, and the fiber amplifier, died 21 May after a sudden illness at the age of 87. Snitzer's seminal contributions to photonics research over a span of 40 years helped pave the way for the development of the fiber optics technology on which the internet and other communications systems operate, and found applications in medical imaging technology as well.

"The optics and photonics community lost an early laser pioneering giant with the passing of Dr. Elias Snitzer," said SPIE Fellow and Past President Anthony DeMaria. "His contributions served as early springboards for the developments of modern fiber optical technology."

While employed at American Optical as director of research in the early 1960s and '70s, Snitzer published on the operation of the first Nd:glass laser soon after the ruby laser was announced, DeMaria recalled. This announcement was followed by the first flash-lamp pumped fiber laser, and an analysis of the optical modes in a multimode glass fiber.

"He then joined my research group at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) to head the photonics laboratories," DeMaria said. "At UTRC he initiated the fiber optics sensor research program. He had the idea of interfering two Ar ion laser beams to form fringes on a glass fiber, thereby imprinting phase gratings in the fiber to form optical filters and wavelength sensitive mirrors."

Snitzer moved to the Polaroid Corporation, where he invented the double-cladded glass fiber, thereby facilitating optical pumping of fiber lasers and amplifiers. After Polaroid he moved to Rutgers University.

"Eli spent many years at Rutgers so I got to know him very well," said SPIE Fellow and Past President James Harrington, a professor in materials science and engineering at Rutgers University. "We both came to the university in 1989, and my first teaching assignment was to team-teach a course on fiber optics with him. I know that I learned about as much of fiber optic fundamentals as the graduate students in the class."

Harrington characterized Snitzer as "a true pioneer in fiber optics and also in glass, fiber lasers, and lasers in general. He was the first to point out the weakly guiding approximation for fiber optics in which the core and clad indices are very close in value. I recall that he passed out his seminal papers to his classes on the early beginnings of fiber optics -- papers that he wrote in the early 1960s."

"Eli was humble and never condescending," Harrington said. "You could always go to him to discuss and kick around an idea on fiber sensors, lasers, etc. Sometimes when you went to Eli with what you thought was a new idea he would politely explain that he had tried that 15 or 20 years ago. He was a true gentleman, original thinker, and gracious colleague."

Snitzer was among laser luminaries honored in the SPIE Advancing the Laser tribute display shown around the world in 2010 as part of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the first laser. He published several papers with SPIE and served as conference chair and proceedings editor.

More details about his career appear in an open-access article in Optical Engineering published during the laser anniversary year, and an oral history interview published by the American Institute of Physics.

"His death is a great loss to the optics and photonics community," said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. "Dr. Snitzer made a huge difference to our field, and his work has contributed to and influenced our world in profound ways."

Elias Snitzer JPEG
Elias Snitzer, whose seminal work helped advance laser technology and lead to the creation of broadband networks, was among laser pioneers honored in the Advancing the Laser tribute celebrating the 50th anniversary of the laser; above a panel from the tribute display.