In memoriam: James Breckinridge

17 June 2022
Karen Thomas

SPIE Fellow and Past President (1994) James Breckinridge passed away 12 June at the age of 83.

A long-time Member of SPIE, he served on the Symposium and Award Committees, was program chair for SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instruments, author of the SPIE Press Book Basic Optics for the Astronomical Sciences and numerous technical articles, and he served on the editorial board for the SPIE Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems.

At the time of his passing, Breckinridge held an academic appointment at Caltech as a visiting associate in Aeronautics and was an adjunct professor of Optics at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona (UA).

In 2003, Breckenridge received the SPIE George W. Goddard Award in Space and Airborne Optics in recognition of his cumulative work in several areas including interferometry (using multiple telescopes to simulate a much larger telescope), corrective optics for the Hubble Space Telescope, optical sciences for NASA's Origins Program, and teaching optical system engineering at Caltech.

SPIE Immediate Past President and Awards Committee member Philip Stahl presents a certificate of appreciation to SPIE Past President Jim Breckinridge

At SPIE Photonics West 2015, SPIE Past President (2014) and Awards Committee member H. Philip Stahl, left, presented a certificate of appreciation to Jim Breckinridge for his years of service on the committee and as Chair of the George W. Goddard Award subcommittee.

“At the age of 8 years, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer,” Breckinridge wrote in the SPIE-produced book, From Photography to Photonics: 50 years of SPIE. “By the time I was 12, I had decided on astronomy and astronomical instruments. By the end of high school, I had built my own astronomical telescope and used it, along with a 3-inch Unitron refractor, to make over 4,000 visual observations of the brightness variable stars for the American Association of Variable Star Observers.”

Jim Breckinridge at the age of eight

Jim Breckinridge at the age of eight, in 1947, applying hands-on experimental engineering of a Lionel Train set. Courtesy of Jim Breckinridge

Breckinridge earned his BSc degree in physics from Case Institute of Technology (1961) and his MSc (1969) and PhD (1976) in optics at UA where he was a student of Roland V. Shack. His dissertation was on the development of the rotational shear spatial interferometer with applications to problems in the astronomical sciences.

Breckinridge’s astronomy career included working as a research assistant at Lick Observatory where he collaborated with G. E. Kron on six-color photometric standards and image tube and designing, as well as building, and evaluating electron optics image intensifier and image converter tubes at Rauland Corporation. He worked in the Solar Division at Kitt Peak National Observatory for 12 years before moving to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1976.

At JPL, he was the instrument scientist for the Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy (ATMOS) experiment and the founding manager of the JPL Optics Section, which is responsible for the design, construction, and testing of most of the space‐flight optical systems built by JPL. In 1999, Breckinridge took an assignment with the National Science Foundation to manage the Advanced Technologies and Instruments program for the Astronomical Sciences Division. He returned to JPL in 2003 as the chief technologist for the NASA exoplanet program. Breckinridge retired from JPL In Jan 2010 after 33 years of service.

OP18 Past Presidents Luncheon

At SPIE Optics + Photonics 2018, Jim Breckinridge, second from right, posed with several SPIE Past Presidents (and one CEO) at the Past Presidents' Luncheon.

Breckinridge holds six patents for innovative optical systems and authored more than 95 publications on astronomy, physical optics, spectroscopy, and image science.

In 2015, Breckinridge discussed his life and career in an interview with UA’s online publication Etendue.

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