IEEE Photonics Society Got Its Start 50 Years Ago

A popular journal and a conference on quantum electronics helped spur interest in the field

10 August 2015

With the invention of the laser in 1960, electrical engineers needed a publication that covered the research and applications relating to the generation, control, and detection of light, and the laser’s subsequent application to telecommunications and information processing. Today the field is known as photonics, but in the 1960s, the term “quantum electronics” was used, and it was the domain of physicists. That’s why most research was published in journals meant for physicists, such as the Physical Review, the Journal of Applied Physics, and Applied Physics Letters.

IEEE leaders became concerned the organization was not doing enough for its members involved in the new field, particularly those interested in developing applications for the laser. F. Karl Willenbrock, then an IEEE vice president (a position that no longer exists) and later the 1969 president, wanted IEEE to publish a journal that would fulfill the need for a publication exclusively devoted to articles and correspondence in the field of quantum electronics.

In 1964 Willenbrock asked the IEEE Electron Devices Group (now the IEEE Electron Devices Society) to sponsor such a journal, because it had become interested in quantum electronics, and in January 1965 it published a special issue devoted to the subject. It covered devices whose principles of operation were based on quantum electronics processes.

The contents of that publication became the basis for the journal’s inaugural issue in April 1965. It was decided that the word “journal,” rather than “transaction,” would be more appropriate, although the group’s publications were officially called “transactions.” An exception was made.

The inaugural issue of the IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics was dedicated to the cucumber lasers described in the 1720s by humorist Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s lasers extracted sunbeams out of cucumbers put into hermetically sealed vials. The first three issues were free and sent to all members of the Electron Devices and Microwave Theory and Techniques groups (both are now societies), as well as to people active in the quantum electronics field. The two groups published theoretical papers, reports on experiments, and tutorials that covered lasers and their predecessors, masers, coherence, and optical modulation and detection.

And because of its interest in microwave techniques applied to optics, the Microwave Theory and Techniques Group cosponsored the new monthly journal, beginning with the June 1965 issue.

According to IEEE bylaws, for two or more groups to cosponsor a journal a council had to be formed. (A council's membership consists of representatives from sponsoring societies or, back then, groups.) The IEEE Quantum Electronics Council was established in 1965. (Incidentally, a publication from a council can be called a “journal,” so the title was legitimized.)

The new journal became popular in the electrical engineering community. With success came confidence and, in June 1967, the council held its first technical meeting, the Conference on Laser Engineering and Applications, in Washington, D.C. Today the gathering is known as CLEO. The council became the IEEE Quantum Electronics and Applications Society in 1977.

To keep up with the evolving field, the society underwent two name changes. It became the IEEE Lasers and Electro-Optics Society in 1985 to describe more thoroughly the fields it was involved with. And in 2009 LEOS was renamed the IEEE Photonics Society, employing the all-encompassing term that had come to define the research and applications related to the generation, control, and detection of light. Today the society has 5,500 members.

The society publishes four journals: the monthly, online-only, open-access IEEE Photonics Journal, the semimonthly IEEE Photonics Technology Letters, the bimonthly IEEE Journal of Selected Topics of Quantum Electronics, and the original IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics, which is a monthly. It also cosponsors, along with the Optical Society of America, the IEEE/OSA Journal of Lightwave Technology, the IEEE/OSA Journal of Optical Communications and Networking, and the IEEE/OSA Journal of Display Technology.

This year the society’s flagship event, the IEEE Photonics Conference, is scheduled for 4 to 8 October in Reston, Va., with IEEE Member Hiroshi Amano, the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, a plenary speaker. Along with the IEEE Communications Society and OSA, the society cosponsors Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition, the largest global conference and exposition for optical communications and networking professionals. It is to be held from 20 to 24 May, in Anaheim, Calif.

This article is based on information in the  Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

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