Friday 12th August 2022

Herwig Kogelnik – IEEE Spectrum


Vital Statistics

Name: Herwig Kogelnik

Date of birth: 2 June, 1932, in Graz, Austria

Family: wife, Christa; sons Christoph, Florian, and Andreas

Present position: adjunct photonics systems research vice president, Bell Laboratories

Education: Dipl. Ing., 1955, and doctor of technology, 1958, in electrical engineering from the Vienna University of Technology; D.Phil. in physics from Oxford University, England, 1960

Patents: 34, four still active

Hero: Karl Jansky, founder of radioastronomy

Favorite composers: “Several. Georg Phillip Telemann and Handel are certainly near the top.”

Favorite movie: Four Feathers

Last book read: God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, by Amir D. Aczel

Leisure activities: tennis (former president of the Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club), skiing, swimming, hiking, paddle tennis

Memberships: Fellow of the IEEE, Optical Society of America, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences

Awards: Frederic Ives Medal, Optical Society of America, 1984; David Sarnoff Award, IEEE, 1989; Joseph Johann Ritter von Prechtl Medal, Vienna University of Technology, 1990; Quantum Electronics Award, IEEE Lasers and Electro Optics Society, 1991

Herwig Kogelnik stands in a cramped closet in a Bell Laboratories research building, surrounded by file cabinets and cardboard boxes full of paper. Having pushed an office chair weighed down by yet another box out into the hallway, he’s got room to stand before an open file drawer and go through its contents. He’s been at it for maybe 15 minutes, trying to pull out only the highlights of his 40-year career.

“Boy, was I in so many things?” he mutters to himself. “This is amazing.”

Amazing enough that the IEEE awarded him the 2001 Medal of Honor, “for fundamental contributions to the science and technology of lasers and optoelectronics, and for leadership in research and development of photonics and lightwave communications systems.”

The “things” he’s been involved with during his four-decade career as an experimentalist, theorist, and administrator at Bell Laboratories include the basics of how lasers operate, the underpinnings of the multichannel optical networks that make the Internet possible, and holographic data storage, to name a few. He was also a co-inventor of distributed feedback lasers, so critical to today’s optical communications, and he was working on optical amplifiers as long ago as the 1960s. In fact, he wrote the book, or at least the chapter, on the modes of resonator cavities, the part of the laser that produces a beam.

Described by co-workers as a gentleman in the European mold, Kogelnik displays an easy-going manner as he patiently puts into words, tinged with a sonorous Austrian accent, years of research that is more often presented as mathematical formulas. As he shows a visitor around the conference room in the Crawford Hill laboratory in Holmdel, N.J., Kogelnik points to a black-and-white photograph that shows astronomer Karl Jansky in front of a huge metal lattice-work that served as his antenna. In 1932 Jansky was working on ways to improve microwave communications when he picked up a signal coming from the center of the Milky Way galaxy, essentially inventing radioastronomy. “Jansky’s my hero,” said Kogelnik. The only reason he didn’t win a Nobel Prize, Kogelnik contends, was that it took people 15 years to realize the magnitude of what he had accomplished, and by then he was dead.

Born in Graz, Austria, in 1932, Kogelnik grew up in Bleiburg, a country town of about 1500 people. Situated in southern Austria not far from the Slovenian border, the town was out of the way then–and still is today. “You really have to make an effort to get there,” he said. Because of its remoteness, Bleiburg was mostly untouched by World War II.

His father was a commercial manager for a newspaper, and his mother taught English and physical education. When it came time, in 1950, to decide what career path to follow in college, he considered medicine. His grandfather was a doctor, cousins were doctors, even his brother became a doctor, so there was a fair amount of family tradition. But there was also no shortage of doctors in his homeland.

“There was a lot of advice coming from friends and family: ‘Don’t become a doctor, because there are so many doctors in Austria, you’ll wind up selling cigarettes in the drug store,’ ” he said. He took their advice, but the medical tradition in the Kogelnik family has been maintained by his youngest son, now doing a medical internship at Stanford University in California. Another son works for a computer chip company in California, and the third is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

One other career Kogelnik considered was music, the violin in particular. Playing the violin requires that the wrist be bent softly, but when Kogelnik was 18, his violin teacher noticed that the youth’s wrist was getting stiff, the result of all the tennis he loved to play. “He wanted me to give up tennis, and kid that I was, I went to college and gave up the violin,” Kogelnik said. He thinks the fact that he let the violin go so easily shows he wasn’t that committed to music. To this day, he plays tennis with his wife, Christa. He hasn’t picked up a violin in years.

Shortly before he finished high school, a career counselor told him that electronics was the hardest course colleges had to offer. Kogelnik was impressed, though he had no real background in engineering. As a child, he didn’t build his own radios or cobble together inventions out of household objects. But the promise of hard work proved to be a persuasive argument, and he went to the Vienna University of Technology.

There he earned a diploma in engineering in 1955 and a doctor of technology degree in electrical engineering in 1958. While working on the doctorate, he taught in the college’s electrical engineering department and did research on microwave transmissions. Kogelnik next won a British Council Scholarship to the University of Oxford in England, where he studied plasma physics with an eye toward fusion and the generation of electricity. Asked to submit his work as a thesis, he was awarded a Ph.D. in physics in 1960.