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James C. Wyant, entrepreneur in photonics remembered by U Arizona community

12 Dec 2023

Founding dean of eponymous James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences passed away on December 8th.

From Ford Burkhart in Tucson

James C. Wyant, a pioneer in both theory and the industrial side of optics and photonics, notably in interferometry, died of ALS on Dec. 8. He was 80. Wyant was dean of the optics college at the University of Arizona, which became the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences in 2019.

In 1982, Wyant teamed with others in the college to launch a company called Wyco in Tucson, Arizona. Wyco’s first contract with IBM was to make a non-contact, optical 2D surface profiler for measuring the surface finish on read-write heads for tape, which was critical for packing more information onto tape used for data storage.

That early effort led to the development of the TOPO-3D product, a more advanced 3D surface profiler based on white-light interferometry that was widely used in the manufacturing of disk drives.

The TOPO-3D inspection systems sold for around $200,000 and disk drive manufacturers like IBM, Read-Rite and Seagate would buy them in large quantities for their production lines, commented John Hayes, who had been one of Wyant’s grad students and a business partner.

Multiple applications

Other applications beyond the hard-drive industry included measuring diamond turned mirrors, integrated circuits, laser gyro mirrors for aerospace applications and a wide range of other industrial and scientific applications.

“Jim's original interest in holography,” Hayes said, “led to his research in phase shifting interferometry and ways to use small personal computers to measure and analyze surface shapes using optical interference.”

The Wyant College said Wyant got the idea for the company as a professor, after inventing a computerized interferometer for high precision measurements of the roughness and shape of surfaces.

In 1997, Veeco Instruments, a maker of precision measuring instruments, acquired Wyko for about $86.3 million in stock, according to the New York Times.

In his SPIE profile summary, Wyant stated: “My major research and development interests involve using old technology, interferometry, and new technology, computers and modern electronics, to produce state of the art instruments for solving metrology problems in many industries including data storage, semiconductor, machine tool, optical fabrication, fiber optics, printing and biomedical.”

UA President Robert C. Robbins described Wyant as “a giant in the field of optical sciences. His vision and leadership dating back to the college's early years set the stage for what has become a world-renowned engine of innovation and knowledge transfer.”

Thomas L. Koch, Dean and Professor at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences, said, “Jim's commitment to the success of the college and to the field of optics was nothing short of astonishing. His academic leadership and philanthropic investments ensured that we would continue to grow, and recruit and support the best students and faculty – attracting the top people from around the world to make advances in optics that will improve our lives in unimaginable ways.”

Born in Ohio, James Wyant attended Case Institute of Technology, now Case Western Reserve University, graduating in physics in 1965. In 1969, he received a doctorate in optical sciences from the University of Rochester Institute of Optics. He initially worked for Itek, short for “information technology,” in Boston. In 1974, he became a professor at the University of Arizona at what was then the Optical Sciences Center.In 1999, he became the director of the Arizona Optical Sciences Center (OSC) and led its transition to a college in 2005 as the founding dean. He retired in 2013.

Wyant co-founded Tucson-based 4D Technology Corporation, working in optical surface metrology. He was a board member for Wyko, DMetrix, ILX Lightwave, Veeco Instruments, Optics 1 and 4D Technology. The Wyant family gave in all more than $32 million in support of UArizona optical sciences faculty and students. Wyant was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors.

Society roles and awards

Wyant was president of both SPIE and OSA, the top societies in optics. He received the SPIE Gold Medal and the SPIE Technology Achievement Award. He is a five-time recipient of R&D Magazine’s R&D 100 Award, as well as a five-time recipient of Laurin Publishing's Photonics Circle of Excellence Award for optical products.

In 2019, Wyant received the SPIE Visionary Award, a highly valued honor that recognizes individuals whose lifetime work has demonstrated exceptional foresight, creativity, advocacy and vision and has furthered the research, development and industries related to light-based technologies.

In 2022, Wyant received Optica’s most esteemed award, the Frederic Ives Medal and Jarus W. Quinn Prize, for pioneering contributions in advancing the science and technology of quantitative interferometric metrology.

He received honorary doctorates from Arizona, the University of Rochester, Case Western Reserve University and the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics in Puebla, Mexico.

Outside of work, Wyant was a passionate runner and hiker and also was a long-time ham radio operator and enjoyed traveling the world. He is survived by his wife, Tammy, and his son, Clair. His late wife, Louise Wyant, preceded him in death.

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