Photo of Emmett N. Leith

Emmett N. Leith

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For discoveries and developments in wavefront reconstruction and holography, and his pioneering application of these techniques in engineering and science.

Emmett Leith will forever be remembered for a toy train. It was at an exhibit at the 1964 Optical Society conference that Leith, an electrical engineer, and physicist Juris Upatnieks used an exhibit titled “Toy Train’’ to demonstrate their development of three-dimensional photography.

The quality of Leith and Upatnieks’ image was stunning, according to the National Museum of American History, and other scientists at the convention lined up to get a look at it. While the image wasn’t the first hologram ever produced, the pioneering work of Leith and Upatniek led to the development of modern holography, which in the ensuing decades would find uses ranging from credit cards to industry to aerospace.

Leith’s interest in holograms was stirred years earlier as he worked with lasers and researched ways to improve radar. By using lasers, Leith and Upatniek found, the quality of the holograms could be improved significantly. Their work helped spur the popularity of 3-D photography.

Born in Detroit, Leith earned a Ph.D in electrical engineering from Wayne State University and spent decades teaching and researching at the University of Michigan.

By Robert Warren