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Dr. Stephen A. Benton, Pioneer in Holography, Dies at Age 61

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Stephen A. Benton, inventor of the rainbow hologram and a pioneer in medical imaging and fine arts holography, died of brain cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital on Sunday, Nov. 9. 2003. He was 61.

Benton was director of the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the E. Rudge and the Nancy Allen Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Laboratory.

MIT President Charles M. Vest said, "Steve brought a joy and spirit of inventiveness to all that he did. He was a gifted teacher, scientist, engineer and artist who personified the best of MIT."

Dr. Vest presided over a symposium held in Benton's honor Tuesday, Nov. 11, at MIT, entitled, "Benton Vision," attended by an overflow crowd of 260 and broadcast via webcast. Among his remarks then, Vest said he wished to "honor a warm friend and distinguished colleague," adding, "Let us celebrate the scientific insight, the engineering talent, the human warmth, the ebullience, the concern for people, the love of art, the fascination with nature, the joy in teaching, the sense of humor, the pursuit of technical holy grails, the desire to make things better, the intellectual curiosity, the zeal for MIT `Nerd Pride,' the frequent chuckle, and the unforgettable sparkling eyes of Steve Benton."

Benton was known for his enthusiasm for all things optical--an enthusiasm, he said, that was ignited the minute he put on a pair of plastic 3-D glasses to watch the film "The House of Wax" at age 11.

"There was a realism and a sense of excitement like nothing I had ever felt before. Not only was I amazed; I determined then and there to figure out how it worked," Benton said.

Benton was born in San Francisco in 1941 and grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif. He received his undergraduate degree from MIT in electrical engineering (1963) and worked with stroboscopy pioneer Professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton. During this time, Benton also worked at the Polaroid Corp., participating in Edwin Land's vision research laboratory. Benton received the M.S. (1964) and Ph.D. (1968) from Harvard University.

"Steve was not only a superb scientist who led his field for decades, he was also a wonderful practical craftsman of the holographic image, and a Pied Piper for students, artists and designers who worked with advanced imaging technology. His influence on the art and design worlds has been profound and enduring," said architecture professor William J. Mitchell, who is academic head of MITís Program in Media Arts and Sciences.

Benton had his first glimpse of a hologram in 1964. It was a "little coffee cup, but it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. I knew my life would never be the same," he said. Holography works like photography in that it records light wave patterns on chemically sensitive film or glass. Converging direct and indirect laser beams create its exciting 3-D effect.

Benton invented rainbow holography-Ėa process that makes a hologram visible using common white light, also known in its credit card iteration as "Benton holograms."

Benton returned to MIT as a visiting scientist in the Laser Research Center in 1980. He became founding head of the Spatial Imaging Group in 1982. A founding faculty member of the Media Lab in 1984, Benton delighted in both the scientific and aesthetic applications of holography. He held 14 patents in optical physics, photography and holography, and his own works in holography have been displayed at the Museum of Holography in New York.

In 1985, Benton began generating synthetic holograms from 3-D digital databases, initially creating a 3-D image of a green car floating in front of the Boston skyline.

He described holography as a true "intersection of art, science and technology." While he considered viewing a good hologram to be a "magical experience," the rigor and depth of his research yielded far more than visual wizardry. Holograms have been used to create three-dimensional composites of CT and MRI scans that have been very useful in medical diagnosis.

"As a world leader in both technology and the arts, Steve Benton epitomized the Media Lab. Rather than mere users of holography, he and his lab invented many aspects of it, including the basic science behind holographic video," said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT Media Labs and the Jerome Wiesner Professor of Media Technology.

In addition to Dr. Vest, speakers at Tuesday's "Benton Vision" symposium included Negroponte, Yuri N. Denisyuk of the Ioffe Institute in Russia; Emmett N. Leith of the University of Michigan; Jean-Marc Fournier of the Swiss Federal Institute; Joseph W. Goodman of Stanford University, Michael Klug of Zebra Imaging, Nicholas J. Phillips of the De Montfort University and Richard D. Rallison of the Ralcon Corporation.

Negroponte told the symposium that Benton "pushed both holography and the arts as a means of advancing science and creativity," adding, "His immediate colleagues were very much a family." Dr. Denisyuk told of Benton's eagerness to collaborate with him despite the difficulties caused by the on-going Cold War. He spoke fondly of Benton's persistent efforts to gain permission from then-Soviet authorities to allow him to visit the U.S. and participate in important scientific conferences here. "It is very unique for such an inventor and scientist to also be so generous," he said. Dr. Leith called Benton "one of the giants of modern holography" who provided "utterly unique contributions." He said, "The Benton Media Lab (at MIT) was where artists and scientists, and even philosophers, brought a broad range of backgrounds together to work. It was most unique, almost unheard of."

Dr. Phillips said that Benton "was a tough cookie, a very strong presence," adding, "His bright eyes belied a very brilliant human being, a tremendous intellect and one of the greatest teachers of physics I have ever met." Klug, whose Texas-based Zebra Imaging company was "founded by members of the Benton group at MIT," said that Benton started from the premise that "light is the purest form of information and the challenge is to make it expressive." "His was a quest to manipulate light to deliver content."

Benton was surrounded by his family and close friends at the time of his death Sunday night. He is survived by his wife, Jeanne Lamphier Benton; a daughter, Julia Benton; a son, James; and brothers Nicholas, editor of the Falls Church News-Press, and Chris, as well as by Chris' wife Judy and niece Donna and her husband Michael Kiley and their daughter Amber, nephew David and his wife Lise and daughter Hannah and nephew Travis. Benton's parents, Ted and Jeanne Benton of Santa Barbara, Calif., died in April 2002. He was a longtime resident of Lincoln, Mass.

(By the Massachusetts Institute of Technology public information office and Nicholas F. Benton).

A WEBCAST of Benton Vison can be viewed at the MIT Special Event Archive.

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