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Thomas I. Harris

In Memoriam: Thomas I. Harris, 1930-2021

January 16, 2021

Thomas I. Harris, OSA Fellow and founder of Optical Research Associates, passed away on 16 January 2021 at the age of 90. Harris founded Optical Research Associates (ORA) in 1963 and served as ORA CEO and Chief Scientist until his retirement in 2000. ORA would go on to become a leading provider of optical design software applications and engineering services for government, commercial, and consumer products. ORA was acquired by Synopsys in 2010.

Harris was raised in Madison, WI, USA, and studied physics at the University of Wisconsin - Madison as an undergraduate. Following graduation, Harris moved to the University of Rochester (UR) Institute of Optics where he pursued his interest in optical instrumentation. Harris studied with Rudolph Kingslake and Bob Hopkins while at UR and developed a deep understanding and appreciation for optics and optical design. Harris completed his master’s degree in 1953 and joined the team at Bell & Howell. Harris spent ten years at Bell & Howell and had the opportunity to work on computerizing third order and ray trace calculations. In 1960, Harris was transferred to Southern California and in 1963, founded ORA. 

ORA was an optical engineering services firm that developed optical software applications that initially were only used by ORA, but customer demand led to ORA making its software commercially available. When Harris established ORA, it was focused on doing lens design and developing the program that would eventually become CODE V®. The program’s powerful capability to do optimization, analysis, and tolerancing of image-forming optical systems and free-space photonic devices became well-known and today CODE V is used by customers all over the world. The company released LightTools in 1995 and continued to develop innovative products, expand its staff and customer base.

Harris recognized the importance of being part of the optics community and was an active OSA volunteer having served on the Finance Council (1982-1984) and a member of the Technical Coordinating Committee (1984). He was made an OSA Fellow in 1980 and received the Joseph Fraunhofer Award/Robert M. Burley Prize for his fundamental contributions to the development of automated optical signal tools (1990). Harris was also a SPIE Fellow and served as the SPIE Treasurer for 11 years. SPIE recognized Harris with the President’s Award in 1992 and he was a co-recipient of the SPIE Technology Achievement Award (1984) for the development of CODE V. He held five patents and published extensively on optical design. He was also an active member of the Optical Society of Southern California.  Harris actively supported ORA’s employee’s participation with OSA and other professional and technical societies.

Harris was known for creating a climate of creativity at ORA and enjoyed finding solutions to problems with his talented team of engineers, managers and staff. He was also dedicated to his family, having met his wife, Marcie, in high school and raising two sons.

Harris was a friend and colleague to many and will be dearly missed. OSA and the scientific community mourn the loss of Thomas I. Harris.