The Australian Optical Society 


The Founding of the Australian Optical Society

W.H. Steel
School of MPCE, Macquarie University, NSW 2109
with help from P. Hariharan, Ross McPhedran, Mike Waterworth and Ian Wilson

Why an Optical Society?

The need for an Australian Optical Society was not always obvious; there is no optical society in the U.K for example. My support for the idea of a society was initially combined with a desire for an Australian Institute of Optics, which would be a centre of research and teaching. These ideas date from my time at l'Institut d'Optique, Paris. On my way there, I visited a few centres in England and started to have doubts about the wisdom of having chosen a place where my knowledge of the language was poor. But I was reassured by a student in Cambridge, later to become a world figure in optics, that I had made the right choice; "there is good optics in England but widely spread over groups that fight each other, while in France it is concentrated in the institute where you are going".

While I was in Paris, I attended several meetings of the Optics Section of the Societe de Physique (but there was no French Optical Society until some months after the AOS was founded). My time in Paris also allowed me to go to two international conferences sponsored by the International Commission for Optics (ICO). Then, in 1956, I was one of the many invited by the US National Committee to the ICO Conference and General Assembly in Cambridge, Mass. We were encouraged to persuade our various countries to join ICO, which Australia did the following year, and Stan Ballard, elected ICO President at the meeting, also took the opportunity to recruit many of us to the Optical Society of America. We moved on to the OSA meeting in Philadelphia and I learned there the great advantages of having a national society. Back home, the Australian Branch of The Institute of Physics, soon to become the Australian Institute of Physics, seldom, if ever, had talks on optics, in spite of the many new fields opening overseas. But they did at least sponsor two optics meetings, in 1956 and 1959, organized chiefly by the efforts of Ron Giovanelli. It was at the first that I persuaded the meeting to support membership of ICO. In retrospect, the success of these meetings showed that a local society was viable.

International Commission for Optics and the Australian National Committee

For some time after this my interests were mainly in the ICO and our National Committee for Optics, the body which maintains our affiliation with ICO. It was rated by the Academy as a subcommittee of the National Committee for Pure and Applied Physics. Because ICO was an "Affiliated Commission" of IUPAP, the Academy had to be persuaded every few years, when people changed duties, that this was not the same as the more common "Special Commissions" of IUPAP and was not covered by Australia's payments to IUPAP but required separate dues. (The relative independence of ICO was made clear when I attended the 1975 General Assembly of IUPAP. ICO had passed some changes to its Statutes, which, by the constitution, had to be approved by IUPAP. When I asked the Secretary-General whether this approval had been given his answer was that they regarded ICO as quite independent and approval was auto-matic.) Through our National Committee, two ICO sponsored international conferences were organized in 1964 and 1974 as satellite meetings to larger meetings in Japan. In 1984, a similar meeting was organized by the newly founded AOS and again sponsored by ICO.

Founding the AOS

Meanwhile the enthusiasm for a society was carried on by people such as P. Hariharan, Mike Waterworth, Ross McPhedran, and Ian Wilson, the last three being graduates of the University of Tasmania. This University had been one of the most successful producers of optical munitions during World War II, in collaboration with the Optical Annex there, and for a while it looked like becoming our Institute of Optics. So it was a sad day when, at CSIRO, we purchased their large optical bench, sigmfying that they had closed down that line of work. Now there is less need for an Institute, since two universities train under- graduates in fields of optical engineering, and optics is no longer a rare field for university research.

The first formal move to establish a Society took place at a special meeting arranged during the Second AIP Conference on Applied Physics, held at RMIT in December 1981 (The Australian Physicist, Jan./Feb. 1983), when a provisional committee was chosen. This committee prepared a proposed constitution modelled on that of the Australian Astronomical Society but with a lower subscription, since it was decided not to publish a journal as did the AAS. There was some discussion of starting instead an Optics Group of the AIP but it was decided that, at least at the beginning, the Society would not be a professional body but, like the Optical Society of America, should cover anyone contributing to or interested in optics in the widest sense. It thus includes technicians and professions other than physicists that are involved in optics, such as chemists, biologists, and engineers, all of whom would not have been members of the AIP. In due course, ties have been established with the OSA, which pays to send their President or his representative to AOS meetings, and later with SPIE, the international society of optical engineering.

A circular was sent to anyone likely to be interested and the inaugural meeting was held at the National Measurement Laboratory in May 1983 (The Australian Physicist, August 1983; Australian Lasers and Optics, 1, 1983). There was an attendance of some 120 of whom 115 became Foundation Members of the Society. The meeting comprised a one-day meeting, "New Frontiers in Optics", sponsored by the Academy and organized by P. Hariharan, with speakers Nicolaas Bloembergen from Harvard on non-linear optics, Jim Wyant from the Optical Science Center, Tucson on the computerization of optics laboratories, Jim Piper on lasers in research and industry, Bill McGillivray on optical bistability, P. Hariharan on holography, Alan Snyder on optical fibres, Roger Netterfield on om thin-film techniques, Trevor Cole on information processing, and Mike Dopita on modern telescopes. This was followed by a two-day workshop on "Optics in Australia'. Provisional of fice bearers for the new Society were elected: W.J. Steel (President), J.A. Piper (Vice-President), R.C. McPhedran (Secretary), J.L. Gardner (Treasurer), and M.D.Waterworth, I.J. Wilson, B.A. See, and P. Hariharan (members of the Council). Succeeding presidents have been Jim Piper, Tony Klein, Mike Waterworth, P.Harharan, Geoff Opat, Mike Rossiter, Bill MacGillivray, Ken Baldwin, and Chris Walsh. On the advice of Mike Waterworth, it was decided to register the Society in Tasmania.

The Society started with a newsletter, Australian Lasers and Optics. This was a commercial venture by a publishing company, shared with the Australian Laser Institute and edited by Ken Crane. Unfortunately it was not a commercial success and ceased publication after a few years, but it was replaced eventually by our current News.

One of the first activities of the Society was to sponsor, with the CSIRO Division of Applied Physics, a workshop on "Precision Optical Fabrication and Testing". This very successful week in May 1984, was run by Rymill Abell and showed the value of including technicians in the Society. This was followed, in August of the same year, by Australia's third ICO-sponsored meeting as a satellite to a meeting in Japan, the Conference and General Assembly, ICO 13. The Australian Optical Society was now well and truly founded.


Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software