From The Editor | August 16, 2023

What's In A Name?

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


Did you ever wonder where the word “photonics” came from? Well, if you have, this is the article for you. If not … well … read this anyway, you just might learn something.

Many scientific disciplines, terms, and measurements are versions of the name of the person who made the discovery. Things like Ampere which was named after Andre-Marie Ampere, Farad which was named after Michael Faraday, and Watt which was named after James Watt. Other common examples include Newton (Sir Isaac Newton), Ohm (Georg Simon Ohm), Pascal (Blaise Pascal), and Joule (James Prescott Joule).

Tutorials Point provides a list of nearly 50 scientific units named after inventors. My personal favorite is the Hounsfield scale which measures radio density and was named after Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield, a top-of-the-line name if there ever was one.

Other units of measurement trace their names to Latin roots:

  • Milli comes from the Latin for 1,000 and represents 1/1,000 of a unit
  • Centi comes from the Latin for 100 and represents 1/100 of a unit
  • Deci comes from the Latin for 0.1

Others were named or created for the humor value. Things like the Potrzebie, Sagan, or Altuve. Or the Smoot or the Wiffle. Or the Power-ninja, New York Second, or MegaFonzie. Seriously, if you click on only one link make it this one.

And Then There’s Photonics

“The word photonics is derived from the Greek word ‘phos’ meaning light; it appeared in the late 1960s to describe a research field whose goal was to use light to perform functions that traditionally fell within the typical domain of electronics, such as telecommunications, information processing, etc.,” writes the Hellenic Photonics Association.

The European Commission seems to agree, writing, “The term Photonics was coined in 1967 by Pierre Aigrain, a French scientist, who gave the following definition: ‘Photonics is the science of the harnessing of light. Photonics encompasses the generation of light, the detection of light, the management of light through guidance, manipulation, and amplification, and most importantly, its utilization for the benefit of mankind.’”

Another mid-60s claim to the first use of the term can be traced back to a paper titled “Coherent Optical Communications” by Amnon Yariv, published in the journal Science in 1964. In this paper, Yariv discussed the possibility of using light waves for communication purposes and introduced the term “photonics” to describe the study and application of light as a means of communication.

But there’s evidence that the term was first used a decade earlier when it appeared in a December 1954 letter from John W. Campbell to Gotthard Gunther:

“Incidentally, I’ve decided to invent a new science — photonics. It bears the same relationship to Optics that electronics does to electrical engineering. Photonics, like electronics, will deal with the individual units, optics, and EE deal with the group phenomena! And note that you can do things with electronics that are impossible in electrical engineering!”

Regardless of the timing of the creation of the word photonics, the term didn't gain widespread recognition and usage until the 1980s when advancements in laser technology and fiber optics led to significant developments in the field. The emergence of high-powered lasers, fiber-optic communication systems, and other light-based technologies propelled photonics into a well-defined scientific and technological discipline. Since then, photonics has continued to expand its reach into various industries and applications.