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SPIE Professional October 2011

A Full Life

Optical design expert Max Riedl owes his career success to scientific collaboration.
Book_A Full Life

SPIE Fellow Max Riedl has worked in the field of electro-optical instruments for more than 50 years. He is the author of two SPIE Press books, Optical Design Fundamentals for Infrared Systems and Optical Design: Applying the Fundamentals, and his recent autobiography, "A Full Life."

Riedl's autobiography, which he self-published for his two grandchildren, other family members, and friends, traces his life from Germany, where he was born in 1926, to his education in precision mechanics and optics, and his immigration to the United States in 1953. Riedl, who holds an engineering degree in precision mechanics and optics and has taught courses for SPIE, worked as a design engineer and later rose to become president and CEO of two U.S. optical companies.

He says the most rewarding project of his professional career was working on the Airborne InfraRed Telescope (AIRT) for MIT Lincoln Laboratory while employed at Infrared Industries.

Airborne Infrared Telescope
 The Airborne InfraRed Telescope (AIRT) being loaded for shipping to the East Coast.

In this edited excerpt from "A Full Life," Riedl remarks on how important scientific collaboration was in his professional life.

Start at Acme Industrial

I had been transferred to the wholly owned subsidiary, Acme Scientific Company (Chicago) in 1956. Now I was the chief engineer of the organization that employed 35 people. The general manager was Alois Krakau who had come from Berlin in 1926.

Not long after I had been working at Acme Scientific, it became my responsibility to repair a very complex optical instrument, an interferometer that was designed by Acme Scientific during World War II. Only two had been built: One for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and one for the laboratories of the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The system that needed repair came from Aberdeen. There were no drawings and no specifications I could refer to. All records were lost or destroyed.

Max Riedl with 1991 Photonics Circle of Excellence Award
 Riedl received the 1991 Photonics Circle of Excellence Award for developing the first commercially available diffractive imaging optics while working for Optical Filter Corp.

I was familiar with the optical principle of the instrument from my studies, but had never seen such a device. How could I find out what was wrong with it and what performance was expected?

I called the Bureau of Standards, explained my situation, and asked for permission to visit them to look at their instrument, which was functioning properly. I flew to Washington and met with the chief scientist who was very knowledgeable about the interferometer. The help and support I got from him and his associates was unbelievable. I never would have received that kind of treatment from any government agency in the old country.

After I explained in detail in my fragmented English what I needed to know, Mr. Sanders, the chief scientist, went out of his way to help me. He even made suggestions for suppliers of certain optical elements if they needed to be replaced. When I left him, I knew I could do the job.

Difficult interferometer test

... When the system, which measured about six feet in height, was functioning properly again, I called the local government inspector for an acceptance test.

I was actually a bit disappointed. When I went through a well-prepared demonstration sequence, he just observed what I was doing and commented at the end, "I really don't understand anything about such things, but I believe you. I just came from inspecting toilet seats. That's easier for me."

At the end, it may have hurt my pride, but really, I was the one who gained most from this project.

... Only those who are familiar with the subject appreciate how difficult it was to align and adjust an interferometer before the laser became that ideal monochromatic light source. In the 1950s, gas-discharge lamps were used as light sources. The laser was first demonstrated in 1960 by Ted Maiman, whom I had the honor to meet, but that was much later.

... Interestingly during this time, I also visited DePaul University in Chicago and met the last surviving member of the original Michelson team. (Albert Michelson was the clever scientist who came from Poland and had invented the interferometer in 1887 with Edward Williams Morley to determine whether an ether exists around the Earth.) The scientist I met from DePaul University was sitting in a wheelchair, and we had an interesting conversation that lasted a few hours. For me it was living history.

Trio at Infrared Industries

... I started work at Infrared Industries on May 1, 1962. ... Work was very satisfying. I was developing a number of optical measuring systems and learned some of the art of lens design from our chief optical designer Warren Smith.

... I mention his name specifically, because over the years, he had the most influence on my professional life. He was a very intelligent man and an extremely practical engineer. ...

In 1964, Lowell Baskins, a very bright physicist from Lockheed, joined the team. That was good for me. I was now close to a top-notch lens designer and a brilliant physicist, and I soaked up what I could learn from them.

... Soon our combined talents were integrated into a creative trio. As such, we were able to win many government contracts for unique electro-optical systems.

Lowell provided the calculations based on the laws of infrared radiations, I came up with the concept layout, and after Warren designed the optical train with all its elements specifications, I finalized the system design. As project manager, I was responsible for the manufacturing, assembling, and testing of these electro-optical devices.

Most of the time, our proposals included charcoal sketches of a three-dimensional view that I had made to indicate what the finished product would look like. First I was surprised how much that helped. I found out that many people have difficulty imagining structures three-dimensionally from engineering drawings.

Teamwork and new products

This arrangement of working together as a three-member team led to a restructuring of the company. While Warren remained chief optical designer with the Optics Division, Lowell headed the Electronics Division, and I was promoted to be the manager of the newly formed Design Support Group serving both divisions. In this function, it was also my responsibility to participate with my team in the development of proprietary company products, ranging from medical scanners to optical pyrometers, radiation standards, collimators, and machine-table-position readout devices, to name just a few.

... In addition to having such great people as Lowell and Warren on the team, I also engaged a local friend, Gunnar Michelson, a stress analysis expert who was needed to test the air-worthiness of the AIRT system. Safety and flight stability were factors to be met.

Again, what a great opportunity for me to interface with such smart individuals. I visited on occasion other experts in the field at the University of Southern California to discuss certain aspects of the tasks that the telescope had to perform in the air. One was the air-turbulence effects at the aircraft window on the image quality. I learned a lot.

It was the type of a project an engineer hopes to be involved in after graduation-instead of a disappointing assignment such as a change order for a screw in an assembly.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201110.03

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