Carl Aleksoff

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Interviewed by
Sean F. Johnston
Interview date
Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM), Ann Arbor, Michigan
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Carl Aleksoff by Sean F. Johnston on 2003 September 9, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location. 


This interview focuses on his career in holography and the evolution and interactions of Ann Arbor institutions developing holography, including Willow Run Laboratories, Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM) and the General Dynamics Corporation.


Aleksoff was an early worker in the Optics and Radar lab of Willow Run Laboratories near Ann Arbor, MI, working on early holography, and spent rest of his career in Ann Arbor in similar domain.


SJ giving background to the history project.

Born 1940, in Flint, MI, and went to the Flint junior college for 1st two years, then 2 yrs at U-M to finish an undergraduate degree in EE.
Had Fellowship that kept him on until he did his PhD, so also from U-M in EE. Almost the whole time he was here as a student, he was employed by the Willow Run Labs, which was doing holography.
His first summer here (in ’61) was for Adam Kozma and Emmett Leith, doing Modulation Transfer Function measurements on lenses at Willow Run.
Got his PhD in 1969. Summer work and part-time work at WRL, and research too.
His degree was obtained through work at WRL. Thesis work was on holography. The group he was in was coherent optics group. He looked at the coherence properties of lasers and how they would be used for holography, and also at time-averaged holography and how to develop it for vibration detection etc.
At WRL, he was in the building east of Beck Road, the ‘blockhouse’, the radar labs. At the time, there were about…not sure… maybe 300 people at Willow Run — acoustics, infrared, radar groups. The SAR research was the motivation for a lot of the holography that came along.
In ’62, his second undergraduate year at U-M, he was doing holography without realising it. They were making matched filters for SAR processing. This was before the concept of formatting was understood; part of the range curvature problem was to improve resolution, and to use matched filters. So he made matched filters using a mercury arc lamp — interfered a straight line with a curved line that was cut out of a mask, and producing that on film which was used to match the SAR signals — so that was basically an in-line hologram.


Emmett often had open on his desk the holography page from Born and Wolf [written by Gabor!]. That’s what we had at the back of our minds; ‘that’s been done’. That motivated our thinking — or at least Emmett’s.
That summer when Aleksoff left was when Juris came along.(or returned, rather, from military service).
Supervisor for PhD was Murray Miller but Leith and Doug Brown were on his committee.

So Aleksoff was involved in the transition years of starting holography — when he was in school Juris and Emmett were beginning the off-axis work. As a grad student he picked it up again.
Al Friesem, Karl Stetson, Powell, Ken Haines and others were there at the time.

Picking up holography? He ended up working there each summer, and so had continued contacts. His summers were more on laser development than holography — still part of the Radar and Optics Group. Sometimes called Radar Group, others Radar and Optics Group. Then Optics broke into Infrared and Optics Group, and it varied over time depending on the thrust of research.

Kikuchi developed the ruby maser/laser (some of Aleksoff’s equipment was inherited from him). Aleksoff was trying to develop a HeCd laser — and looking for some way of scanning the laser beam efficiently. Got lead molybdate piezoelectric components.

But Aleksoff was pretty remote from the holography work – he wasn’t there during those times, and was incidental to it. But when working on his thesis, and a lot of stuff had been done — interferometry with Stetson, Powell, Haines, Percy Hildebrand – he roomed for awhile in Percy’s office, but Aleksoff developed temperature modulated transducers etc.

How many summer students? Probably half a dozen in the Radar and Optics group — infrared was across the road. [Beck road?]. A combination of undergrads and grad students. Fairly free rein in terms of contracts. Money was pretty easily coming in, so you could do the kind of things that looked good, and not worry about writing proposals.


PhD up to 1969, then worked one summer for Phillips Lab in NY, doing modulation concepts there. Don Harrick did internal spectroscopy, later formed his own company for infrared equipment. Did spectroscopy from internal reflection from surfaces.
He went out on his own in a laser company 1970 or ’71 for laser alignment services. That didn’t really work out as a company. The construction people interested in laser alignment didn’t have any business themselves at the time, during a downturn…
Did some holographic work as a consultant for the Army at Huntsville, getting better resolution for Doppler imaging of missiles using rotating optics.

Then he came to work for ERIM in Dec 1973, shortly after it opened. He stayed since then.
Is it still the same organisation? The culture has changed, going from a non-profit institution with different goals and interests and management style – no major decision made before floating it and getting comments — but as a private company the bottom line is profit and it is more hierarchical.

Same kind of customers? They haven’t changed that much — basically government agencies and military.

ERIM — ERIM International — Veridian — General Dynamics.

Kaiser was formed from some guys — Gene Chang etc — who left ERIM to form the company.

Altarum is really the old ERIM. When the for-profit version was formed (ERIM International) it was part of the ERIM structure, but sold off — about 95% of the people went with it. So the old ERIM became a ‘holding company’ for property but got some of the money from the sale of ERIM International.
So it became a research company again, starting almost afresh. It went in different directions — not having much of a focus has been a problem. It wanted to fit the original mold.


One of the funny stories: ‘Why did ERIM ever get that name? It turned out to be a surprise to everybody that it was called the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan because it was supposed to be called the Research Institute of Michigan, and the signs were getting ready with R I M — Rim. But we needed an endorsement from the state of Michigan and the backing of them to do that financially, not that we needed the money but just to have the good backing and ability to do what we needed to do for contracts, and there was one state senator that was pushing the bill through the state legislature to form the company, and he decided at that time that ‘environmental’ was a very good thing to have, it could help pass a bill very quickly; it was the ‘in’ word to use (laughing), a popular term, so ‘environmental’ got stuck on the front and it passed, and to everybody’s surprise we were the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan!’

We really did very little ‘environmental’ kinds of stuff. But part of the charter was were to help the state of Michigan and with the break-off we tried to fit that charter a bit more closely and tried to do things that were more closely related to small companies in Michigan.

Altarum moved across the street to the former Domino’s pizza headquarters, then to a new building they’d built, also across the street (behind ERIM). The ERIM building, in the campus area, was sold to Pfizer (one block down), and building new headquarters in about a year (2004). Moving to an industrial park south of Ypsilanti, in the direction of Willow Run. Built for their needs, including an astronomical tower.

This building was originally for Bendix, and partially deeded it to ERIM for tax reasons.


Any other offshoots? EoTech and Tony Tai was a formal establishment of a company, where ERIM agreed to work with him and help support him, providing the seed money. Some of the other offshoots had animosity, but not Eotech. Within the last year or so, Eotech has become an independent company. Their products come from ERIM.

Early ERIM: he pauses. Part of analysis group, so did analysis of things on as-needed business, usually radar — the main money generator. Looked at a lot of kinds of SAR concepts. For the moon, space, all kinds of things.
When did optical processing stop? Gradually digital computers got more powerful. The bulk processing work continued to be done for a long time because of the high throughput.
Digital could be better but slower. So optical processing continued to be the bread and butter through the 1980s, into the early 1990s. Rolls and rolls of film could be run through. Screen and display capabilities had to be developed, too, to make it user-friendly.

A change of culture, too? Optical people shifting to electronics. A lot of people just adapted. Aleksoff first used IBM punch cards, as long as computers were on the campus. Slow and irritating — finding a day later that a decimal point had been misplaced.


The concepts for digital processing had been there for quite a while, but it took time to adapt.

The final processors were in storage for 3-4 years and finally given away — to the Media Lab at MIT, at Eastern Michigan University, and to Emmett. The Media Lab apparently has some sort of display. Eastern Michigan was trying to use them for some of their programs.

How much ERIM activities involved holography? How you define holography in the classical sense of image-based holography pretty much diminished. In terms of metrology, Karl Stetson has his own company, United Technology which he was part of. ERIM was interested in lasers for a long time, and metrology and vibration analysis was a natural direction.
Percy Hildebrand and others moved some of that holography into the acoustic area. He did acoustic holography for nuclear reactors etc. Ken Haines went to Holotron with DuPont, trying to do more of the optical kind — he developed holographic embossing.

ERIM did other kinds of things — the radar stuff is primarily a holographic system and novel microwave imaging along the same lines. To get high resolution microwave imaging required either an enormous antenna or synthetic aperture techniques. Much of Aleksoff’s work was in laser radars and synthetic aperture imaging. As lasers get better, partly through optical telecommunications, can do much better with modulators now. Digital holography had to wait for enough pixels.

Bud VanderLugt was developing the matched filter concept — Aleksoff did some work for him. He developed digital holography using videcon tubes.
Juris Upatnieks hasn’t worked at ERIM for 5 or 6 years. He started his own consulting company, and every so often had links.
Ivor Sindrich (?) was boss of Aleksoff for awhile. Headed up the optics lab at ERIM for awhile, developing concept of using holograms to scan beams. With Alex Klooster developed holographic viewer to display an image on liquid crystal display. Turbulence of the display took away speckle in the image when SAR processing.

For a number of years these things were displayed in the lobby — but it’s all been thrown away. You can only do it for so long. For bottom line profit motive, you’ve got to account for how much area you have — so many square feet — what are you doing with it? How productive is it? [laughing]

We have some of the original large holograms still in storage cabinets, but I’m not sure they’ll make the move

*** CONTACT ERIM Directors regarding such things and documents BEFORE their move. ***

Aleksoff has been trying to ensure things go to good homes.

Chatting about saving such documents, and Ann Arbor’s special history. Aleksoff still has his original triply-modulated holograms at home.

His very first: about 1967 or 1968. Recall seeing one? One of Emmett’s, Juris had it, holding it in front of the laser. You’ve got to look for it too — learning how to find it in the first place, and understanding the inverted versions etc.


Aleksoff had an office on the N Campus when the bomb went off — all the windows were blown out and cracked. Doesn’t remember when it was done. He was a grad student at the time. Of course things changed somewhat after that. One was the security for the buildings. Everything was locked up, and certain doors were no longer used. It was only that one incident that occurred. There was some protests that occurred — not so much around the lab, but against the lab — an animosity. That’s a large part of the reason that ERIM was formed. The university just said ‘take everything you’ve got, and just move it out! Basically that’s what happened. For a long time people were teaching and working at ERIM’. There was a greater separation than there had been at WRL.
Protests were against the university, rather than WRL specifically, generally aligning the classified aspect with something going on elsewhere in the world.
Doesn’t recall anyone brought to trial for the bombing — they had a good knowledge of the group that did it, but not the individual.
Windows broken, and side entrance where the bomb was — no inside damage or structural damage.

George Stroke: was also in the IST building. Where the Radar and Optics Lab was is now occupied by Ultra-Fast optics, in the ‘high bay area’.
George Stroke — interesting person (chuckles). I took his course. It was the very first course he had offered (1964, presumably) before he wrote his book. It turns out he was also an examiner on his oral exams for the PhD program. I had got to know him in the classroom, but never worked for him. He knew my abilities, and so during the oral exams he gave a very favourable response, so I was very happy about that. But then the idea of who invents what came up, and he was very egotistical, and wanted to claim things for himself, beyond what was really appropriate, causing a lot of animosity. You could certainly see what was going on. There was always a conflict there, with people wary to tread softly.

Lloyd Cross: met but never got much involved with him. Was he involved with Harris [NO]. Adam Kozma, VanderLugt, Leith — all went to Harris, to form an optical group in Ann Arbor. Tried to get optical storage to be success — but not even now! One problem was the material — really need a 3dimensional material written using low energy — didn’t find it. Second problem is read in/out optics that are practical.

Doesn’t seem to know much about Cross beyond the name.


Currently working on laser radar, using holographic principles.