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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Stephen Benton

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Interview with Dr. Stephen Benton
By Sean F. Johnston
At his office in the Media Lab, MIT
July 11, 2003

 
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Stephen Benton; July 11, 2003

ABSTRACT: Steven A. Benton, interviewed by Sean F. Johnston, recorded 11 Jul 2003 in his office at the Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA. Benton, working at Polaroid Corporation in the late 1960s, developed a variant of holography known popularly as ‘rainbow holography’, which permitted holograms to be viewed in white light. He joined MIT in the early 1980s and was subsequently a founder member of the Media Lab. The interview surveys his career in the field. Benton died some 4 months later of a brain tumor.

Transcript

Benton:

That was great to see him; you know, he’s one of the people you bump into, traveling around.

Johnston:

So where did you first meet him then, do you think?

Benton:

In the University of New Hampshire — not New Hampshire, Michigan.

Johnston:

Michigan? Right.

Benton:

Yeah, he was spending time in the lab there, what’s his name’s lab, you know.

Johnston:

Emmett Leith?

Benton:

Emmett Leith’s lab.

Johnston:

What interests me most, in talking to you, is about the early days, the things that aren’t recorded, that aren’t documented.

Benton:

(laughs)

Johnston:

Can you tell me just how you got into holography in the first place?

Benton:

Mm hmm.

Johnston:

I mean, where did you first see your first hologram? Can you recall?

Benton:

Well I had been interested in 3-D since I was a kid, back in the early thirties [fifties], when things like, you know, 3-D movies were coming out and, uh, so I’d come here to MIT to go to school and started working for Doc Egerton doing 3-D stuff; he introduced me to Polaroid, to Edwin Land, who was still doing stuff in 3-D but had been an enthusiast {of holograms} [3-D??] in the fifties but had never been able to figure out what to do with it either.

Johnston:

So that was the link? From MIT to Doc Egerton to Polaroid and...

Benton:

yeah-yeah.

Johnston:

…to Edwin Land.

Benton:

And a strong interest in 3-D in general, and I was just — I hadn’t realized when I came here to go to school that there would be that kind of pay-off, that it probably wouldn’t exist anywhere else. Um, so I started working when I was an undergraduate at, uh, Polaroid, but that was before anything had happened in holography.

Johnston:

Right.

Benton:

But when that, that did start to happen, Land basically said, “you know, if you want to do this, I’d love to have a lab put together and play with it again.” Sure! (chuckles), you know, I’d do that, and, uh...

Johnston:

So did Edwin Land have any obvious purpose for doing this, or was it merely one research area amongst many?

Benton:

Yeah — one among many. I mean, Polaroid and Land were, you know, very different kinds of companies. This was basically stuff he wanted to see get done, and if some of it paid off, you know, that was okay, but not essential.

Johnston:

Okay.

Benton:

I mean, obvious, the advise was… this was during the transition from black and white to color, so there were important things going on, but he was not — he was a real scientist, a real inventor.

Johnston:

So how did you get into holography itself, then? Was it at that point of setting up a lab at Polaroid?

Benton:

Uh, yeah. That’s where holography got started. Uh, let’s see — who was it? Somebody came and he invited another fella at Michigan whose name will come to me, uh, to talk about holography. Uh, not, uh…

Johnston:

Let’s see — it wouldn’t be George Stroke, or…?

Benton:

Stroke — right, who had shortly before been booted from MIT for his behavior.

Johnston:

So I’ve heard, sort of under-the-table.

Benton:

Yeah.

Johnston:

It’s one of the things I’m trying to follow up, because it’s the kind of thing that’s undocumented and yet was — I guess it was kind of important to Leith and Upatnieks, this relationship with this problem.

Benton:

Yeah — yeah. I mean, it was a very interesting (chuckles) dynamic, because it was pretty clear that Stroke only partially understood things from a physicist’s point of view and, of course, the other guys were electrical engineers who were coming at it from, you know, radar, and, uh, so...

Johnston:

Yeah

Benton:

…so there were no holographers except for, oh, what am I thinking of, the original inventor, who was —

Johnston:

Oh, Gabor

Benton:

Gabor, yeah, who I had met at a conference here. But I was interested in 3-D. That was my motivation, but everyone else was — and Land — but, you know, Leith and Upatnieks were interested in technology, instrumentation, I’m not sure what else was...

Johnston:

I see. So that remained your guiding interest: 3-D itself, rather than other applications of holography.

Benton:

Right. I mean, I had come to work part-time as a student in order to play with 3-D and Land was still interested; he hadn’t seen anything that looked like a breakthrough either, uh, but was willing to, you know, see what new people might do, especially students.

Johnston:

That’s great. So were you on your own then, doing this at Polaroid?

Benton:

Well, yeah. I mean, I had, uh, I guess you could say that. Land was the inventor of what is called UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program] here, where he said you ought to be — students, undergraduates — ought to be hired as researchers and given opportunities to do things. Whatever I would do would belong to Polaroid, there’s no question about that, uh, and he had had students before me from Harvard and MIT, so I joined the club, as it were. I was the only one who was really an optiker, interested in optics, imaging and, ultimately, 3-D.

Johnston:

I see.

Benton:

But, uh, so we were puttering around and there were really two things going on: one was imaging in general, and the other was video — you know, how would you do some kind of holographic — some kind of holographic — electronic holography.

Johnston:

I see.

Benton:

And the patent — I think really only one patent — uh, sort of says both: well, you can, uh, do the horizontal information only, you can send that electronically, and you can also record it, on film. And I kind of thought the electronic thing was going to be the pay-off, but, uh.

Johnston:

Right, if you could reduce the signal content enough — the information content.

Benton:

Right. Just going from total to vertical cut that down a lot, and then you could chop that up and, you know, fill it in. But it was really the optical holograms that people said, “I want to see more of those!” You know, “the world’s ready for that”.

Johnston:

The white-light transmission...

Benton:

Right. Uh, and, Land was always great to work for anyway, but he really did, uh, he came over and looked at it and said “You know, it really looks like something may happen in holography after all these years!” Because he had been a fan in the fifties but nobody saw a way to get a breakthrough.

Johnston:

Well, that was a real breakthrough, wasn’t it? White light reconstruction must have been miraculous.

Benton:

Yeah, well, it started out pretty crude, with flashlights and stuff...

Johnston:

So how did you discover it, or come by it? I can see it from information theory, from a certain point of view, but did you do it that way? Or was it an accident?

Benton:

Uh…it was sort of a mix, but definitely also a mix of just puttering around and…what was the sequence, but that was sort of a toy at the time, and we said “Wow, that seems to be what everyone seems to think is interesting!” There was never any pressure at Polaroid to do one thing or another, and it was just… “here’s your lab, here’s your equipment”. You know, as long as I, or whoever was involved, when you bumped into Edwin Land you had something in your pocket he hadn’t seen before, that’s all it took!

Johnston:

I see. Something to show each time. A good demonstration.

Benton:

Yeah, sure. Especially if you’re, you know, still I was, like, an undergraduate, then a graduate student, I didn’t need a lot of money, so there weren’t a lot of demands, but when I did, uh, finally graduate, he was — then he would start spending money on equipment, you know, scale things up from, you know, little holograms to big holograms, even though I actually was about half-time at Polaroid and half-time at Harvard, after I got my PhD, to do my research at Harvard. As long as I had something fairly new, you know, I went from monochrome to color to a little bit of animation, he was really happy.

Johnston:

I can imagine. So was the lab very well equipped, then?

Benton:

Uh… I would say — fair. I mean, he was adamant that, actually, the smaller the budget the more important the work. So, and…if you would wait, and Polaroid was very much an up-and-down business and budgets weren’t always high, especially when they were trying to move to full-color production of film, he would say, “Look if you would like three-color lasers for holograms, this would be a good time to make a plan!” (chuckles)

Johnston:

So he guided your budget requests, then?

Benton:

Yeah. It’s the kind of place Polaroid was, at the research — at the Cambridge — end. Towards the west, it was manufacturing, a different culture.

Johnston:

So the research lab was based in Cambridge here, wasn’t it, on Main Street, was it?

Benton:

Uh, yeah — up Main Street, the buildings are still there, they’ve been rebuilt. It started in the thirties in Boston, but quickly moved out here. Polaroid was the kind of company that didn’t actually own a lot of real estate.

Johnston:

So they leased buildings?

Benton:

Leased buildings, moved around. Pretty…pretty minimal. As a study in the history of technology, it’s interesting all by itself, independent of optics, and photography.

Johnston:

Absolutely. So you started off pretty small, then, fairly unknown, I suppose. But the white-light transmissions must have made your name.

Benton:

Yeah, they did —

Johnston:

Brought attention.

Benton:

It wouldn’t have gone anywhere, frankly, if I hadn’t run into, what’s her name, the artist — Harriet Casdin-Silver.

Johnston:

I met her last week.

Benton:

Oh, good — good. And I think we had been at a — she come to a — or I invited her to come to Polaroid because I had heard about something she had shown, then brought her downstairs and showed her “This is what I do!” and she was “Do you know what you have here?” (conspiratorial laugh) “White light viewable holograms that are nice and bright,” and she says, “we could make holograms together!” So, I... Polaroid is also independent or different from Kodak: much more art oriented.

Johnston:

Really?

Benton:

Was at the time. They employed photographers and put them to work on more or less technical problems.

Johnston:

Why do you suppose that is? Just to sell their technology as being an artist’s technology?

Benton:

I think it was just Land’s interest. I mean, the reason he was doing this was that he just loved photography. He was not an expert photographer himself, but he took lots of photographs. He hired people, he bought lots of photographs, had a big collection he put together, supported…

Johnston:

So there were exhibitions and things?

Benton:

Yeah, yeah. There was, it had moved around for the last five or so years, a fairly big space on the corner of Main Street, and they’d have openings, it was very…he collected photographs; it was one of the tragedies that that sort of mentality disappeared when he disappeared. They’ll sell it or give it away…

Johnston:

I see. So did he encourage artists directly, then? Or simply hire artistic types to do technical things?

Benton:

Some — he worked very closely with – oh… out in California, the nature photographer.

Johnston:

Can’t think of the name; a landscape…? I think I know who you mean [Ansel Adams?]

Benton:

Yeah.

Johnston:

I think I know who you mean.

Benton:

That actually goes way back to the beginning of the photographic part of the company. But there were lots of photographers around here; he would look in but, he didn’t manage it personally; he would hire people to sort of keep it going and collect stuff and, uh, he’d give them film with the option of first choice what to buy, and whatever Polaroid didn’t buy they were free to sell themselves.

Johnston:

Oh excellent. That’s very generous, isn’t it? So when Harriet Casdin-Silver saw your white-light work, she was impressed, and it hadn’t really struck you at that point that this was really a popular technology that might influence people?

Benton:

Yeah, I had mostly been exposed to the technical side, as an optical scientist, but… and not everybody agreed. I was making holograms with people at Polaroid, too, who liked the blurriness of ordinarily white lit full parallax [holograms]. They’d say, “Well, that’s art…” (chuckles). Because it was also image plane, which was not a big deal at the time. Most images were pretty far out of the plane. But Harriet was willing to work together and to collaborate. And that’s really when it stopped: when she really just wanted people to make holograms the way that she liked them I said, “Well, that’s really not much fun for me”.

Johnston:

Not much technical challenge, I suppose.

Benton:

Yeah. Several times I had offers from people who wanted to, say, make holograms of the president or something, and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t think that wasn’t wonderful.

Johnston:

It’s just another object, isn’t it?

Benton:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So they went off and did it, because I was really just interested in coming up with inventions, when it came right down to it And Harriet was really great to work for for that first year, but as you’ve probably discovered, artists just love to become independent (chuckles).

Johnston:

Yes, it seems that way. So where did you go from there, then? You eventually came to MIT, but…

Benton:

Yeah, I had been at Polaroid, and, uh, that whole thing started, oh gosh, started trickling in the early seventies, and we talked Polaroid into attempting businesses to manufacture holograms, first in rainbow holograms, and then more and more people got interested, and we wanted to make reflection holograms, and full color, which we never actually got to, urn, but the reflection holograms amounted to something and sort of got DuPont back into the business they had been in before, and saw that Polaroid was interested in selling them.

Johnston:

Is that the photopolymer process?

Benton:

Mm hmm. So we had a very good chemist — have a lot of good chemists at Polaroid, who came up with chemistry for photopolymers. Um, but it was the way a company like Polaroid is, where you’ve got tens of thousands of employees, you can’t… it’s very hard to convince anybody that you’re making any money. It’s just — sure, it’s novel, sure, it’s fun, but, uh, all of a sudden you’ve got forty new employees that didn’t have anything else to do.

Johnston:

Yeah, so it’s an expensive thing to develop new products and new lines like that.

Benton:

Right. And there was always — it’s an interesting topic, you know the conflict between Cambridge, the sort of intellectual, inventive side and the part out in Waltham trying to make a living on a large scale, and you can look at the history of the company, and say that trying to manufacture cameras was just a mistake for a company like Polaroid; you know, they invent technologies and then go to other companies and get them to build them.

Johnston:

Yeah.

Benton:

Completely aside from the holography, I mean holography wasn’t all that I did there, but I was allowed to spend at least half my time, or nobody stopped me when I (chuckling) tried to spend half of my time…

Johnston:

That’s a lucky position. What other kinds of things were you doing at Polaroid, then?

Benton:

Uh, technology — optical technology to monitor thickness of coatings, and quality of how things were going, other kinds of 3-D technologies, uh, I was sort of allowed to have holography to myself with a couple of technicians — Bill Molteni, who you may have met…

Johnston:

I haven’t met him, but I certainly know the name.

Benton:

There were three or four of these hot-shots. But what you find is that, people who were drawn into holography by their own motivations didn’t really want to work for anybody for very long, just long enough to learn, which was...

Johnston:

Yeah, and then go independent, or do something else.

Benton:

Yeah, yeah. Or trying to find something else, which is… So when Land left Polaroid, which was about 1982, I transitioned. He took most of my team with him to his new lab, but I was caught up in this manufacturing of holograms, and he said, “You should stay here, and at least try to make sure that it finishes.” And, yeah, that’s okay with me, you know, but then there was a kind of a shift between the distant labs which were manufacturers and a little more mercenary, and the soft-hearted researchers who are not used to protecting themselves, and — so after two or three years it was pretty clear that Cambridge was going to be decimated, and Land and, uh, oh… Nicholas Negroponte, who was one of the co-founders here and — I’m having memory problems these days — but the former President of MIT, who was very dear friends with Land, and basically Land had one day said “I’d like to give him a present that nobody else will”, so I said, “Let me make him a hologram”, and made him a nice reflection — white light reflection hologram of a train and, uh, gosh… Billy he’s named after…so he came over to Polaroid one day, and said, you know, “How did this happen? I’ve never seen anything like this,” and we spent a couple of hours looking around at stuff and he was happy and says, “You know, I’m going to try to get my guys to do something like this,” and I said, “Yeah, but, Professor, I am one of your guys! I grew up here!” (chuckles) So, years later, when he said, “Would you be interested in coming over part time and teaching a course on holography?” and I said (whispering), “I’ve got a better deal for you; Land’s leaving — maybe you know that — and I could go up to half-time.” I did that for a couple of years and when the media lab was ready, because he was co-founder of the Media Lab with Nicholas, and I joined the faculty here partly to teach about that and partly because I had been a Professor at Harvard and I knew what it was like to run a real university which nobody here did.

Johnston:

So that’s how holography got into MIT, then?

Benton:

Yeah. There were two or three other people who were doing little things with holography — in electrical engineering, and in mechanical, and aero — this was the early eighties, so we still had a lot.

Johnston:

Okay, right. So HNDT type things.

Benton:

Yeah, so it was a pretty good community, and there still is, in mechanical engineering, a serious holography guy but he’s doing instrumentation type stuff.

Johnston:

Yeah. You became known as a chair of conferences, I guess, in the early seventies or mid seventies at some point, and you chaired so many conferences after that in holography that ‘holography’ and ‘Benton’ became synonymous…

Benton:

(laughs)

Johnston:

…so how did that happen? I mean, did Polaroid pay for all of these conference appearances, or…?

Benton:

Well, Polaroid let it happen, they didn’t sponsor it. Um, but I had good luck. I knew that they would sponsor part of it, but fund raising was part of what had to — what one — not everybody in all those conferences did that, but I could — I could see that, for people to get interested in these meetings, they’d have to see holograms, and they had to be presented respectably. Um, that — those conferences were actually started by TJ, in Chicago — you know who I mean?

Johnston:

Yes, yes, I met him in Santa Clara this January [Tung Hon Jeong at Lake Forest College]

Benton:

Oh, yeah. But basically, he was starting his, uh, summer events which were more artistic and, uh, I was, you know, “the science part’s going to fall apart; nobody else seems to be stepping up to this, so…”

Johnston:

Right, right.

Benton:

So, I did. And I’d been active in the SPIE, I’d been a Vice President and invested in the thing on the grounds of my previous research on granularity — film granularity, which was… And they were, it grew, it was John — uh — anyway, grew it up from nothing until it was a substantial, uh, service, not a scientific society in the sense that the Optical Society was, frankly, but, an enterprise.

Johnston:

It certainly seems to have become important for holography. Both SPIE and OSA are the two big ones, aren’t they?

Benton:

SPIE, OSA and then, at a distance, the IS&T, which is more chemically oriented. But basically, IS&T, no I’m sorry SPIE, oh, god — I’ve got to — I’ve been away from it for a couple of years — but, uh, they were much more entrepreneurially oriented. Anybody wanted to come in and start a conference, if you could sell it to a couple of people, or they would have confidence in you, they’d say “Great! Let’s give it a shot!”

Johnston:

Okay, I haven’t had any real contact with them yet. I know SPIE and the OSA quite well, since I’ve been a member for years, but not the other one.

Benton:

Yeah, SPIE is much more entrepreneurial than the OSA, which was older, more classical, uh, optical guys. But I’ve had a hand in, in all three.

Johnston:

Yeah. One of the things that interests me is just the growth of groupings of people around this…

Benton:

Yeah.

Johnston:

… and obviously there are artists, and there are scientists and engineers — have you got any sense for clumpings or groupings of people that have come from this?

Benton:

It… after awhile — they are all very different, the SPIE, I guess it is, has a much more overseas thing, so one of the things that gave it mass, that made it a three day meeting was especially — you know, I have a lot of friends in Japan, and said “Why don’t you guys come over, and, you know, with your papers…eventually up to half, or nearly half, started showing up and giving interesting papers. And also the sponsorship — their companies were eager to get well-known, so… And I would use some of that money to bring in artists — not a lot, but four or five, just to make it more interesting. Uh, and whatever artists — whatever scientists were making things happen in the States, because the SPIE is a pretty respected engineering society, but not much real fundamental science, but it’s okay, it’s okay with my goals for it, but… so it was sort of a mix to bring people together who weren’t seeing each other, and sure enough, you know, some artists would invent lighting systems that they thought were very cool, and the scientists could hang out — even if they registered for other conferences — you know, nobody knew where they were! SPIE is that kind of Society…

Johnston:

Lots of conferences at the same time, yeah.

Benton:

So they’d come over and hang out. So for about ten years, it was really popular and I could go around and invite people and cover their costs, to get a few extraordinary — nobody had seen the Russian.

Johnston:

Not Denisyuk?

Benton:

…Denisyuk before. It’s absolutely his first visit to the States. And he was just sort of a legend, and a wonderfully enjoyable guy.

Johnston:

I’ve never met him, but I’ve emailed him. Gosh. So you cross-fertilized different groups, then? You brought them together?

Benton:

Yeah. So that was my goal. I, you know, just wanted to meet people who were doing interesting things, to see what came along.

Johnston:

Sure.

Benton:

So that was, uh, and it didn’t take a lot of time. But my emphasis — I forget when that started; I guess it was the late seventies. And then, uh, when I came here, and started teaching, it was a wonderful place for students to give their first papers because it was not too demanding…

Johnston:

Right.

Benton:

So I didn’t have to worry about them. My students here are not classical scientists in that sense. It didn’t matter — it only mattered to a few of them if they didn’t have papers in the Optical Society of America. For most of them, having SPIE papers was just fine. They’re mostly non-mainstream science students, a lot of them with art type backgrounds, art interests. And they’re hands-on; a lot of stuff needed to be pounded, you know, from metal to equipment.

Johnston:

A lot of experimentation rather than theory.

Benton:

Whereas a lot of the Media Lab was programming. They didn’t know how to use a tool.

Johnston:

So did this fit neatly into the Media Lab, or was it a bit of a, you know, separate unit?

Benton:

Uh, well, it was at the very beginning of the Media Lab, so it didn’t have to fit (chuckles).

Johnston:

Well, yes.

Benton:

Yeah, It was just sort of here, and it was mechanical, it had lots of equipment — not brand new, and not expensive stuff, but people who knew how to build things, and so they became a part of the culture, an important part. There were better programmers, there were better computer… you know, what’s this thing do? But in terms of having, uh, drilling and pressing plastic and so forth, until about five or six years ago, they were the hot-shots.

Johnston:

Hmm, right. So where do you think holography’s going, then? You’re talking in the past, partly…

Benton:

(Chuckles) well, I am.

Johnston:

…and not so much in the future, I suppose.

Benton:

I think that this group will probably close in another year or two, mainly because of health problems for me. I’ve just got to retire. Uh, but the, uh, and also because it’s an analog business, and… although it’s interesting that’s gone down, everybody’s been doing, you know, digital blah blah blah and then other parts of the Media Lab are doing culture stuff for non-US cultures that, you know, to improvise and build stuff, but after — one of our big draws, all along, has been people who are interested in 3-D graphics, and thought that, when they got to graduate school, they would actually be doing 3-D. Well (laughs) it’s not. It’s 3-D math-based, but our recent work on holographic video has got a lot of attention and sort of kicked things off. In Japan, there are three or four labs that are trying various approaches. Uh, we’ve stuck to, you know, our original… uh, we were trying to get going to a second generation, but haven’t been able to get the kinds of students who can… I mean that’s the other thing, it’s dependent on who comes along.

Johnston:

Yeah, and I suppose analog-based techniques are less popular to incoming students, they don’t realize what potential there is, or what they can do with it.

Benton:

Yeah. Eventually, if you’re actually trying to make something happen, it has to become analog, the digitalis only good up to a point. But we’ve attracted a lot of new people around the world. I don’t feel strongly that we ought to be, you know, the sole — in fact, the more groups there are participating, I think, the more likely we are to, uh, come up with something new and different.

Johnston:

So how different, do you think, the MIT grouping is from other groupings around the world? Is there a kind of mark, or style, of doing holography here that’s different?

Benton:

Well, traditionally — I mean, I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at this question; whoever shows up here who’s interested will get a fair listening — and it is a highly international lab. I mean almost half our graduate students are non-US. And certainly the students in this group are not what you would consider strong theoretical students. They have skills, but they’re not — some of them have been from art backgrounds, and have learned a little bit of holography. I’m very interested in — Land built Polaroid mostly around people who had not been to college.

Johnston:

I see — right.

Benton:

It was really toward the end, when the company had to grow so quickly that you’d find that there might be some PhDs and lots of Masters students.

Johnston:

So quite diverse backgrounds at Polaroid.

Benton:

Yeah. And that’s — I grew up there, at that time, and said, you know, that’s what you want; people who are really committed to it, and sort of self-trained inside the culture. And that’s what we had, more or less unconventional students, which was what the Media Lab wanted in general, what Nicholas Negroponte, you know — you don’t want to compete with the electrical engineering department for standard, uh, people. Now that’s changing, because the Media Lab’s getting bigger, and the job’s are — it’s no longer radical stuff.

Johnston:

But do you have a sense that the students that left your lab here were more of a single type?

Benton:

Yeah, I’d like to think so. I mean, they went off, and many of them have started their own companies, in groups of one, two or three, urn, some of them are artists who just, you know, weren’t in it to make money. So it’s been very interesting. Some of them are just in the neighborhood, they have families, and if somebody wants a hologram made, they’ll answer the phone call.

Johnston:

That’s excellent, that’s really good. You mentioned not the newest equipment, or some second-hand equipment. Where did the equipment come from for the MIT Lab?

Benton:

This whole thing started in, what was it, 71 [81?]. And eventually money started to come in, in droves. So we got — in fact, I’ve got a milling machine and equipment out in my barn, that I got and had to leave here, and I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out…

Johnston:

So sponsors brought lots of money in, and paid for a lot of equipment.

Benton:

Money and equipment. I mean, they’d rather give something they make than the money, but, uh, … and government funding. Once the momentum started going, we didn’t have to worry so much. But at the beginning we were all scrounging for, you know … or I’d go to Polaroid, where I still had a connection, and we’d make something up there if I knew where the equipment was, you’d get away with it (chuckles)

Johnston:

So it was a gradual transition from one to the other? That’s very handy, isn’t it?

Benton:

Yeah, yeah. They were happy to have it happen. You know, they get a little credit. And Polaroid never did become a sponsor here.

Johnston:

Is that right, really? Well, I guess they didn’t really have the money at that stage, or did they?

Benton:

Oh, they could have, but they were — I mean, one of Polaroid’s problems was that they considered themselves a photography company — period. And, I say, “You know, if you’d learned a little more electronics, you might — things might go differently!”

Johnston:

They could have made the transition better. When I was up at the MIT Museum, I heard the subway there, and I saw the student lab. Have you got that problem here as well, with the subway passing nearby?

Benton:

Uh, sure. Um, I mean, all this equipment is on vibration isolation stuff, which does help — and at Polaroid, especially, uh, we’d get things ready to shoot around 2 in the morning and then, (chuckles), you know…

Johnston:

So it was a night time activity for the most part.

Benton:

Yeah. Because, you know, the idea that people would go home at 5 or 6 o’clock just hadn’t — Polaroid wasn’t that kind of culture, and neither was this, until a few years ago, when it started to empty out on the weekends, so that’s — and of course the work we’re doing now is — very little of it is vibration sensitive, it’s mostly electronics oriented, so… But, yeah, it was pretty brutal: you had to wait around, and line things up, and maybe one out of three would be satisfactory but, you know, when that’s the only thing that’s happening you feel pretty excited.

Johnston:

Oh, of course. So what’s kept you in holography all these years? Have you still felt that excitement or enthusiasm?

Benton:

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, why am I still in love with my wife? (chuckles)

Johnston:

Well, it’s true. But — some people simply get locked into a career — but I have the sensation with holographers that it’s not like that, because people do it because love something about the process, or the images, or the people, or — something.

Benton:

Yeah, yeah. It’s something you didn’t expect to see in your life. At least, for somebody my age, totally unprecedented. But also, I think it’s, uh — I mean, certainly people came in and did things, and holography moved out into liquid crystals, became famous there, and moved on and did something else, and, you know, that’s great, but do you have any emotion for this? For any of those? Or is it just, sort of, there’d be a few people who would get excited emotionally and recruit — Bell Labs, for example, had a lot of interesting work going on, but as soon as, whatever happened, pooped out, it all disappeared.

Johnston:

It’s the display aspect of holography that keeps people excited, I suppose.

Benton:

I think so. I think that. And unfortunately it’s not a big business, or even a small business. You sort of do it if you can manage to hold onto it.

Johnston:

So what do you think about the way holography has gone? It hasn’t proven to be the wonder commercial enterprise of the future, has it?

Benton:

Well, it’s still the, it’s still the only way to do that kind of 3-D, and one of my goals along was to say, “okay, uh, we might be able to invent other kinds; this is going to be the icon, but maybe some other inventor will…”

Johnston:

Other variants or other kinds of autostereoscopic 3-D.

Benton:

That’s right. But up to that point, most kinds of 3-D just looked like crap. You know what I mean: people just making post-cards. So I think it did ‘up the ante’ quite a bit. That was, yeah, that was the one benefit of it. To make it serious, to make it respectable. But, yeah, it came, and electronics came in, and it sort of stole away the bright young people. I think they’re starting to come back. I am surprised. I should point out that all of a sudden there’s a little more interest. Not a lot, but especially since the holographic video started up. People said, “Oh, maybe there is more, that we hadn’t thought about”

Johnston:

It does seem to have gone in cycles. The peaks of interest have come and — they haven’t really lined up, but they’ve come in different fields at different times.

Benton:

Yeah, it’s not Edison type — just blammo!, just punch through it — but, you know, there’s got to be room in the world for that kind of stuff, and we’ll see who — you know, just a couple of a few months ago there was a paper I think out of Texas about computer generated images that, you know, all of us old guys look at and say “This isn’t anything!”, but you know, somebody’s doing it! (chuckles) Maybe they’ll build it up and get it another step or two.

Johnston:

It’s good to see things revived, and rethought again, yeah. Well thanks very much for talking to me; I really appreciate it.

Benton:

Sure, sure.

Johnston:

It’s wonderful to be able to catch you like this, and I’m glad I did.

Benton:

I’m glad we could get together. I think you’ll have a great time with our President.