OSA arose at a time of immense uncertainty, with Europe embroiled in 1916’s “Great War.” Yet OSA’s birth also reflected a spirit of optimism, flowing from the preceding half-century’s amazing progress in optical science. And that optimistic spirit has been borne out repeatedly in the succeeding 100 years.

The Optical Society is Born

The first issue of JOSA, dated January 1917.

OSA Founder, Perley G. Nutting.

Elsa Garmine, a future OSA President and a pioneer in nonlinear optics, in the lab at the California Institute of Technology, circa 1969.

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, a blockade against Germany meant optical glass from that country’s skilled suppliers was no longer available to the burgeoning optics industry in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. Industry and academic scientists in Rochester—mainly from Bausch & Lomb, Eastman Kodak and the University of Rochester-- realized they needed more knowledge of optical theory and advanced instrument making skills to develop their own supplies and that a scientific society for applied optics would further their interests.

Led mainly by Dr. Perley G. Nutting, a scientist with the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) and later the Eastman Kodak research laboratory, the group first developed a local optical society in Rochester in 1915. With further effort, The Optical Society of America--rechristened The Optical Society (OSA) in 2008 in view of its international reach--held its first meeting in New York City on 28 December 1916. The first issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America appeared in 1917. It marked the beginning of years of steady growth in which OSA became one of five member societies of the American Institute of Physics in 1931. OSA also began establishing local sections around the country, realizing its goals “to increase and diffuse the knowledge of optics, to promote the common interests of investigators of optical problems, of designers and users of optical apparatus of all kinds, and to encourage cooperation among them.”

Growing Up With U.S. Industry

When World War II broke out, the U.S. was much better prepared than it had been in 1914 with a fully realized, basic and applied optical-science enterprise. Many optical scientists participated in the war effort and OSA continued to operate and hold scientific meetings. By the end of the war, OSA was poised for rapid rise to coincide with the U.S. industrial and scientific boom that followed. Optical sciences began to branch off in many different directions, however, and OSA worked to keep up and remain a professional home. In 1959, the OSA Board of Directors appointed Dr. Mary E. Warga, University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A., Executive Secretary of the Society and opened up a national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Membership rose from a handful of people in the early days of OSA to more than 2,200 members in 1955. Today, OSA members number more than 22,000 people worldwide.

The Laser Boom

On 16 May 1960, Dr. Theodore Maiman fired the world’s first working laser at Hughes Research Laboratories, U.S.A. The event changed history, including for OSA, giving birth to the field of nonlinear optics. Lasers found new applications in spectroscopy, surgery, biological and molecular imaging to name just a few. Membership in the Society soared along with interest in this new field, also facilitated by the OSA journal, Applied Optics. Lasers gave rise to the field of electro-optics, and to light-based technologies that are the backbone of today’s internet and global communications systems. Using coherent beams of light plays a critical role in the development of quantum technologies including quantum computing. Three OSA members, Drs. Donna Strickland, Gérard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin were named 2018 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their fundamental investigations of laser light that are enabling today’s applied technological advances in quantum.