In Memoriam: Lenny Lipton

Considered "the father of 3D,” Lipton's poetry also inspired “Puff the Magic Dragon”
11 October 2022
Karen Thomas
Lenny Liption in a YouTube interview with Moving Images
Lenny Lipton in a YouTube interview with Moving Images

SPIE Fellow Lenny Lipton passed away 5 October in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 82.

Due to his development of movie and television technology used in theaters and on flat-screen TVs, Lipton is considered "the father of 3D." His inventions include CrystalEyes, an electronic stereoscopic product for computer graphics and video applications such as molecular modeling, aerial mapping, and medical imaging: NASA used it to remotely pilot the Mars Rovers and Lockheed used it to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Another invention, the ZScreen polarization modulator, is the first flicker-free, field-sequential 3D display technology. Lipton has more than 70 patents in the field of electronic stereoscopic displays.

A long-time member of SPIE, Lipton worked with IS&T/SPIE Electronic Imaging, and published several proceedings papers tied to that event. He contributed to a special section on 3D and 4D imaging techniques and applications in the SPIE journal Optical Engineering, in part by authoring the paper “Brief history of electronic stereoscopic displays.”

Lipton also wrote several books including Independent Filmmaking (1972); Lipton on Filmmaking (1979); Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema (1982); and The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Era (2021).

Lipton is only slightly less well known as the father of “Puff the magic Dragon.” As a freshman studying physics at Cornell University in 1959, he typed a poem about Jackie Paper and a dragon named Puff on a friend’s typewriter and left it there. The friend was another physics major named Peter Yarrow, who used the lyrics for a song in 1962 with his group Peter, Paul, and Mary. The song peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is considered one of the folk trio’s most famous hits. The royalties from the song gave Lipton a financial security not often afforded to researchers, allowing him to concentrate on his research and inventions.

Lenny Lipton_Ripleys Believe it or Not

The people who invent

Lipton grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was eight years old when his father gave him a 16-millimeter projector. “It was a toy, but I really understood how it worked,” he said. “I didn’t take it apart as much as I really understood how it worked, so I made other things like it.”

In a 2007 interview with Physics World, Lipton was asked about those early beginnings. “When I was about 10, there was a stereoscopic boom,” he said. “I became aware of 3D photography, comic books, and movies. I began to do my own experiments on the polarization of light and started designing stereoscopic projectors. For me, stereoscopic images were a thing of wonder and beauty, and I never saw the difference between the art and science of stereopsis.”

In the same interview, Lipton also pointed out the need for schools to pay more attention to students whose thought processes might not follow the norm. “I had a great education at Cornell, but I was a decidedly mediocre student,” he said. “I am a creative and determined person, and I got a lot smarter once I found a field I loved. I see the world becoming one in which children are pointed in the direction of money as an end in itself. I hate living in that kind of a world. Schools need to be more accepting of eccentric people with a different point of view because we are the people who make the difference. We are the people who invent.”

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