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OSA | Living History

John N. Howard

1991 President John Nelson Howard was a tireless historian for the optics community. His many journal articles chronicle the rise of not only the Society, but the leaders and events that contributed to the growth of the U.S. optics industry. Another key contribution to the community was his guidance as founding editor of Applied Optics (AO) when the journal was started in 1960. AO debuted in 1962 as a six issue/year, 100 pages/issue journal, but it caught on rapidly, becoming a monthly a year later, a semi-monthly a few years after that, and by the late1980s was running 5000 pages/year.  After 27 years as AO editor he retired in 1987. 

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Florida, U.S., Howard did spectroscopy work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA), U.S. During World War II, he served in the Air Force. After the war he attended graduate school at Ohio State University, U.S., receiving an M.Sc. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1954, both in molecular spectroscopy.

In 1954 Howard joined the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (later renamed the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory), where his research interests were infrared atmospheric transmission. He later headed the Infrared Physics Branch, and in 1960, the Optical Physics Division. In 1964 he became AFCRL’s chief scientist, a post he held for 17 years. While at AFCRL, Howard was the curator of Lord Rayleigh’s manuscripts held by the AFCRL library. He spent many years organizing Rayleigh’s manuscripts and correspondence.

Howard was a Fellow of the OSA and APS. He was also a member of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the History of Science Society. An active participant in these societies, Howard served on various committees (usually relating to publications). He also served on the AIP Publication Policy Committee, and on the Physics Today advisory committee including three years as chair. From 1983 to 1989 Howard served as editor of OSA’sOptics News.

Howard’s contributions have also reached the international optics community. From 1981 to 1987 he served as vice president and treasurer of International Commission for Optics (ICO). He compiled a brief history of ICO for its 50th anniversary.

Howard died in 2015 at the age of 94.

John N. Howard died on 15 April 2015, please see OSA's memorial entry.

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Document Created: 12 Jun 2013
Last Updated: 9 Jul 2021