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In memoriam: John Kiel, SPIE Treasurer and founding member

14 August 2014

John KielJohn Kiel, one of the founding members of SPIE who served for many years as the society's treasurer, died on August 13 at his home in California. He was 91.

After the birth of SPIE in 1955, Kiel is credited by many as being instrumental in the financial survival of the organization through its early years. He later became Treasurer (1971-1983) and served on the society's Financial Advisory Committee for the following 30 years.

Former SPIE executive director Joe Yaver credits Kiel for his guidance at a critical time.

"The society was lucky that during its very fragile period, they had this 'Rock of Gibraltar' of a treasurer, a finance guy with good advice and discipline," Yaver said. "Essentially the society was broke when I started. He immediately insisted that we stop losing money, and the way to do that was to cancel the annual meeting that year. He basically asserted financial discipline into the organization."

A Marine Corps veteran, after World War II, Kiel worked for Producers Service Company in Burbank, California, making animation stands and specialty cameras for the Walt Disney Company and others in Hollywood. He recalled in an interview that business was steady but there was a lot of competition. At a Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers high-speed congress in 1950, he noted how the international attendees were keenly interested in his products.

"I saw there was a real international market for this equipment. The Russians would come by and take all of your literature," Kiel said. "I thought this was a great product line." As the demand grew through the Cold War years, he stayed busy as his cameras were used for U.S. Government tests of rockets and missiles, many of them classified. Producers Service Company became Photo-Sonics in 1952.

"I always said there was such a demand for high-speed equipment that all you had to know how to do was spell ‘camera' and then you'd get a contract to build one," Kiel recalled.

One of SPIE's early members, Chuck DeMund, recalled the precision cameras from this era: "One of the long list of remarkable camera engineering feats at PhotoSonics under John Kiel was the development of a pin-registered 16mm high speed camera capable of taking perfectly steady motion pictures at the "impossible" rate of 1,000 frames per second. The laws of physics seemed to say this could not be done. Keys to the camera's transporting film, stopping it for exposure and then moving the next frame into place were careful balance and a tiny pulldown claw/register pin, designed and machined to watchmaker standards."

Yaver said that Kiel "loved his connection with SPIE. He seemed to have a real feeling for the organization."

SPIE established the John Kiel Scholarship in recognition of his long-standing and significant contributions to the society. This scholarship is sponsored by SPIE and is awarded for a student's potential for long-term contribution to the field of optics and optical engineering.

Kiel is survived by his wife, Colleen, his five children and their families.